Episode 143: High School Students Can’t Write

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Last week when we talked about college application essays for what seems to be the millionth time in our three years together, we suggested that you go back and listen to Episodes 98, 99, 106, and 110 if you have a senior at home with college application essays due now and over the next few weeks.  As I said last week, I have been spending some time in one of New York City’s most exclusive high schools to help two classes of seniors with their essays.  As a result, I have been thinking hard about the sorry state of the writing skills displayed by some of our best public school students–and, of course, what to do about it.

1.  One of My Favorite Stories

As we mentioned back in Episode 99, no one–not me, not you, not the best English teacher you ever knew, not the most expensive college consultant you can find–can truly fix a kid’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, edited, and submitted on time.  The situation is too pressured, everyone is too anxious, and there is too little time.  So, let me tell you my favorite story about how to solve the problem.

As we said back in Episode 99, in the more than 100 Common Application main essays I read and edited last year (and that number does not include all of the supplemental essays that I also read and edited), I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, including from a grammar and mechanics point of view.  (By the way, this year, I have also read one, maybe two, really good essays from students in that highly respected school.)  Last year, I called the best writer aside and said to him, “How did you learn to write like this when none of your classmates appears to be able to do it?”  His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade.  His tutor went over his written work and showed him how to improve it.  He said that she had worked shoulder to shoulder with him in many, many sessions.  I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding.  He said that he did not enjoy the tutoring and did not enjoy writing now.  But he sure could do it, and he knew that he could do it.

In my experience with high school students and with younger professionals who have worked for me and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing.  It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom–although some grammar and mechanics lessons undoubtedly should be taught from the front of the classroom for openers.  Rather, it is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, while the student watches and learns and absorbs and understands the reason for every change that is being made.  This shoulder-to-shoulder editing process has to be repeated and repeated and repeated–until the student becomes almost as good at it as the teacher is.  It sounds slow and laborious, and it is.  But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.  This is writing tutoring, not writing group instruction.

Here is the rest of the problem, which is already clear to every teacher in the U.S. and, I hope, will now be equally clear to all of you parents who are listening (if it is not already).  Today’s middle school and high school English teachers cannot serve as writing tutors for each of your kids–and that is precisely why so many of our high school students will not learn to write well enough for college.  Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a line-by-line basis–or even of 100 students or even of 50 students–day after day and week after week, while talking through those corrections with each student one by one.  And, of course, that’s not all English teachers have to do.  I am not defending overworked English teachers here; I am merely stating the obvious–something so obvious that I can’t believe more schools haven’t tried to solve it rather than just looking away and pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

I recently said something pretty objectionable to two classes of quite smart high school seniors–at least, they thought it was objectionable.  I was talking about their draft essays that I had just read and tried to edit.  Some were so poorly conceived and written that I really couldn’t even edit them.  Here is what I said:

“This writing will not get you through college.  You might think that it will, but it won’t.  You might think that it will because you are going to major in mathematics or chemistry or engineering.  But it still won’t.  That’s because each of you will likely have to take at least a couple of humanities courses that will involve writing essays or papers or research papers in order to graduate.  And when you do, this writing won’t get you through them.”

2.  Talking to a National Audience

Last February, I had the occasion to speak at a national conference of teachers and administrators from Early College high schools.  I called my presentation, “Your Seniors Can’t Write.”  Parents, listen to what I said to see what you might do in your own kid’s high school to help us solve the problem.  It’s going to take all of us, and I believe that nobody’s voices should be heard any louder than yours.

I started by asking the audience, “What’s in your junior year and senior year English curriculum?”  I am guessing, I told them, that it is literature heavy:  American, British, or world literature, especially if you have standard grade-level courses that all students take (even if you have some honors and AP levels of those courses).  If you have a variety of semester electives as your curriculum, I continued, you might offer a writing-focused course or two, most likely journalism.

Then I asked this, “Is a curriculum focused on teaching literary works–novels and short stories and plays and poems and speeches and literary essays–as well as great nonfiction works the best way to improve students’ writing?”  I told them that, usually when I make a presentation at a national conference, I believe that I have “the answer” to a problem that people in the audience are trying to solve.  But this time, I said, “Today, I do not have the answer, and I am hoping that you do.  Today, I have just the problem.”  I warned the audience members that I intended to put them into small groups toward the end of the presentation so that they could work out some ways to solve the problem.

Nonetheless, I said, I was willing to go first and offer an idea to get the conversation started.  I opened with an anecdote.  Last fall, I said, I asked two classes of juniors in an elite New York City high school what they would like to study in the upcoming spring semester.  The students were all in a standard year-long American literature course at the time.  In the interest of full disclosure, I had just had a long discussion with them about the quality of the writing of the seniors I had been working with and I had also analyzed the writing of a few of their own junior classmates impromptu–kids who thought they wrote quite well (but who soon realized and then stated bravely in front of their classmates that they didn’t).

I said, “Would you prefer to keep doing American literature or would you prefer to focus on writing?”  Virtually every one of these college-bound students voted to switch the curriculum to writing.  Unfortunately, no school administrators were listening.

3.  An Idea for Solving the Problem

So, here was my idea for improving high school English curricula. (By the way, for more than three decades, I have written high school English curricula that are used in states all over the U.S., and I never did what I am about to suggest.  Why?  Because, sadly, I had not seen the problem up close the way I have in recent years.)

I suggested that all high school students take an intensive writing course in the spring semester of their junior year.  It would be best, of course, if all high schools in the U.S. would do this so that no student’s college admissions chances would be hurt by a course that colleges thought was odd, or not rigorous enough, or out of the mainstream.  If I could, I would wave my magic wand right now and make that happen in all U.S. high schools.

My course would focus on expository writing, on academic writing.  It would not include any creative writing, like poetry or short stories or plays, which many high schools like to do and perhaps do very well.  It would not include any literary analysis, because most of us do not write like that once we get out of college.

One thing it would include is the college application essay.  Students would write more than one main essay for more than one of The Common Application prompts (whatever the prompts are at the time).

I had a high school English teacher many years ago who explained to us that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort.  So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.  I know that’s going to sound like more work to kids–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that, all too often, many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape.

In my course, students would also write several essays targeted to the most commonly used topics for supplemental essays in college applications–in fact, both a long and a short version, so the word count would always be appropriate, depending on the word limit of a particular college.  That is not a hard thing to do, and students will find that three or four essays well done can be used over and over again, with minor editing, in various college applications.

But wait just a minute.  In my course, there won’t be writing of only 650 words or fewer.  (Parents, you should know by now that 650 words is the limit for The Common App main essay.)  No.  There will also be a research paper of many pages–maybe more than one.  Here’s why.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and, more importantly, he’s a really smart guy.  Marc wrote an article last January in the Top Performers Education Week blog entitled “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well–It’s No Mystery Why.” Let me read you the sobering opening paragraphs of Marc’s article:

My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person.  We had close to 500 applicants.  Inasmuch as the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked [each of them] to produce a one-page summary.  All were college graduates.  Only one could produce a satisfactory summary.  That person got the job.

We were lucky this time.  We are more often than not disappointed at the subpar writing ability of the applicants for openings at our organization.  Many applicants are from very good colleges.  Many have graduate degrees.  Many are very poor writers.

Their lack of writing ability does not auger well.  When we look at what they have written, the logic of the narrative is often very hard to find. It would appear that their lack of writing ability stands as mute testimony to their lack of thinking ability.

How, we ask, could this have happened? . . . [H]igh school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers . . . .

This point is critically important.  There is only one way that we can find out whether [students] can write a substantial research paper–by asking them to write a substantial research paper and looking carefully at the result.  If we do not ask them to produce this product–over and over again, as they get better and better at it–then they will not be able to do it well.  If they have not done the work, then neither their teacher nor the engines of the accountability system can assess it.  If this sort of serious writing is not done and–in our accountability-oriented environment–is not assessed, then it will not be learned.  End of argument.

Well, in my new high school English course, I don’t need to have my course’s research papers submitted to and assessed by outside evaluators–although that is actually both an intriguing and a feasible idea–but I would like them to be assessed by the teacher.  Not really assessed, so much, as edited line by line, with the student sitting there and hanging on every word.

By the way, I care almost nothing about grades in my course.  I don’t want the teacher to spend time “grading” things.  I have friends who are English teachers who constantly worry about having to grade things–a lot of things and quickly–so that they can substantiate a report card grade eventually.  In my course, I want the teacher to spend time working with each student individually on every sentence that student writes.  I could easily support every teacher’s giving every student an A in the course–as long as every student kept writing and working hard at it and improving.

I might just have one of those research papers that Marc is calling for be about individual colleges or, perhaps more generally, about issues in higher education.  I told the audience at the conference that Marie and I had just written a new workbook for high school students entitled How To Explore Your College Options.  I explained that the workbook was literally an explanation of an 11-page questionnaire that, we thought, every high school student should fill out about any college he or she might be interested in attending.  In my course, after each student does the research to get the answers to 52 key questions about a college, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the student write up the findings so that other students might benefit from them.  Students in a class could create their own guidebook of college profiles for a variety of colleges–and learn to research and write at the same time.

But, let me not get ahead of myself.  I told the audience that my course would be called College Research and Expository Writing.  Of course, there would be an honors version, and I plan to put every student in it.

4.  It’s Up to You, Parents

Parents, if you have a younger high school student at home, consider talking to your high school principal about the English curriculum now.  See whether you can get a writing course offered–or even required–so that your kid has a better chance at writing not only great college application essays, but also great term papers and research reports and whatever else they are going to have to write once they go to college.  I had a great high school history teacher who made us write five-page papers every week because he knew we were going to have to do that all the time in college.  I never thanked him enough for that great preparation.  Parents, fixing our national crisis in high school students’ writing is way more important than my telling you how to help your kid write a winning college application essay.  And I can’t fix it without you.

By the way, not one Early College high school educator in the audience challenged the title of my presentation, “Your Seniors Can’t Write.”  So, what does that tell you?

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Episode 142: What’s Wrong with Your Kid’s College Application Essay?

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Well, it’s officially November.  Some Early Decision and Early Action deadlines have just passed, and many others are fast approaching on November 15.  There is very little time left for those of you interested in submitting early applications.  As we said at length in Episode 138 and as we have repeated in the past few episodes, we think that all of you should be applying Early Action to all of the schools on your list that have an Early Action option and that some of you should be applying to your first choice under the Early Decision option.  So, think about that one more time while there is still time!

I thought a long time about whether to do today’s episode on college application essays.  It seems like such a tired topic–one that everyone gives advice about–and we have done a number of episodes on this topic already, though not since last February (go back and listen to Episodes 98, 99, 106, and 110).  And yet, I continue to be surprised at how little many parents and teachers know about the common and supplementary essay requirements in college applications.  I am in the throes of reading and editing The Common Application main essay for about 60 high school seniors right now–that is, the main essay that is written to one of seven prompts supplied by The Common App people and that will be transmitted to any of its more than 700 colleges and universities if your kid applies to any of them (which he or she almost undoubtedly will).  Please re-listen right now to Episode 110 if you aren’t familiar with The Common App essay requirement.

As I have done for the past couple of years, I have spent almost a week in the classrooms of one of New York City’s best high schools (indeed, one of the nation’s top 75 high schools, according to U.S. News & World Report).  As a result, I have a few things I would like to say–again–though I am not sure we can say it any better now than we did in those previous four episodes.

1.  The Sad Truth

I am going to talk to you today–as I have done before and hope I never have to do again–about the sad truth that many, many, too many high school seniors cannot write.  I will not talk to you about the many, many, too many grammatical and punctuation and word choice mistakes that I see in 9 out of 10 essays I read.  For an elaborate discussion of those mistakes, go back to Episode 99.  But, trust me, the mistakes are there, and they are inexcusable for high school seniors as well as extremely distracting to any college admissions officer trying to get through hundreds or even thousands of similar essays.  I can’t imagine that some essays, written as they are, even get read all the way through.

Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To pay attention to grammar–To watch out for split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, poorly placed participial phrases modifying the wrong word, incorrect and inconsistent verb tenses, and the lack of agreement between nouns and pronouns
  • To check punctuation–To watch out for random commas inserted for no reason, commas that are left out before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, periods and commas inside quotation marks always, and the random use of semicolons
  • To be careful about word choice–To watch out for sophisticated or “big” words that he or she would never use in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher) and that, therefore, he or she is highly likely to use slightly incorrectly
  • To avoid wordiness and repetition–To watch out for sentences that have too many irrelevant and/or unnecessary words and to watch out for sentences that say the same thing as previous sentences (often in just as vague or unconvincing a way)

I will also not talk to you about the finer points of writing most essays–this college application essay or any other.  For an elaborate discussion of those finer points, go back to Episode 98.  Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To make a memorable first impression–To write a great first sentence, which makes the college admissions officer want to continue reading the essay, when he or she has way too many more to read (Back in Episode 80, we told you the most common and boring ways that students in the U.K. started their college application essays.  U.S. kids do that, too!)
  • To make a memorable last impression–To write an extraordinary final sentence, which is his or her last chance to make an impression on the college admissions officer (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that almost no kid can write a great last sentence or really a great ending at all.  Many kids ended their essays on a ridiculously grand scale in an overly dramatic way that does not fit almost any teenager’s life story.)
  • To remember what the point is–To include what he or she has learned from the story or experience or reflection that the essay is about or how that story or experience or reflection impacted his or her life (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that many kids get bogged down in the details of a story they are trying to tell in the essay and forget what the point of that story is.)

 

2.  Another Sad Truth

And let me talk to you about another sad truth–the fact that some kids don’t seem to have anything to write about.  Parents, let me make this very clear:  No amount of editing–including by your teenager’s English teacher or by the most expensive college admissions consultant you can find to work with your teenager–can save an essay that is not really about anything.

To be fair, some kids have a great idea for an essay right away; in fact, some kids, have more than one great idea, though not as many kids as you might think.  I have also found that some kids can come up with a decent topic after a long talk with me about their young lives–about their families, their hobbies, their school activities, their jobs, their career hopes, their volunteer work, their academic failures, and their personal successes.

However, some kids actually can’t come up with anything to write about.  They can’t think of anything that makes them special or interesting or appealing as a candidate for college admission.  But that’s what this essay is:  a way to look desirable to a college, whether your appeal is your brains, your kindness, your insights, your perseverance, your thoughtfulness, your compassion, your generosity, your inventiveness, your quirky outlook on life, your triumph over adversity, or something else.  The college wants a glimpse of you, to be sure, but it had better be an appealing one.

I was chatting recently about this last group of kids–the ones with no ideas for the essay–with one of their teachers.  I was asking why she thought these kids didn’t have anything to write about.  She said simply, “They don’t do anything.”  Of course, they come to school and do their schoolwork–most of them quite well.  Many also take part in the standard bunch of school activities, play on a sports team, and take music lessons.  But how many essays can a college admissions officer read about a kid who loves the piano and did really well in a statewide music competition?  Or learned about perseverance and hard work by playing on the football team?  And here’s my favorite:  learned how to be a more effective person from playing video games (I have read more of those than you might think).  So, what do these kids do outside the box?  What do they do or think or care about that makes them just a bit different and more memorable than a thousand other kids?  What makes them the kind of student a college would want?

Parents of younger high school kids, it is time to start thinking about what it will be like at your house when essay time comes–while there is still time to encourage your kid to engage in activities and causes and scholarly pursuits and cultural events and family life and community life worth writing about in a college application essay.  Here’s why this is so important:  I bet that many colleges would rather accept a kid whose essay is inspiring or enthusiastic or compelling or intriguing–even with a small grammar or punctuation mistake or two–than a kid whose essay is superficially picture perfect, but has no substance.

Parents of younger high school kids, I can make your kid’s essay superficially picture perfect, but I cannot really give your kid an experience that he or she can write an essay about.  Only you can do that for your kid and with your kid, based on the experiences of your lives.  So, start thinking.

And let me remind you again, parents of younger high school students and parents of seniors, don’t forget to check out the seven prompts for The Common Application main essay (see Episode 110).  You will see that they are reasonable options for kids to write about and, hopefully, you might get an idea of how to help your kid–now or next year or the year after that.  By the way, this year’s prompts are very similar to last year’s (with a couple of additions), so there is no reason to believe that they will change totally for next year, either.

3.  Coming Soon in Our Next Episode

So, I feel as though this episode was more of a rant than anything else.  I apologize for that, but this is the third year I have had this college application essay experience.  I don’t want to have to talk to you about this again next year, parents of younger high school students!

Last year, I told the kids I met with at the well-known New York City high school that I mentioned earlier, “You write like third graders.”  This year, I said something even scarier and more objectionable to them.  Join us next week to find out what I said to them and to consider with me how to fix the problem that our high school students can’t write–and that’s a problem much bigger and much more important than whether a kid gets into one college or another.  Unfortunately.

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Episode 106: The Nightmare of the Supplemental College Application Essays

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We are still in Series 9, The Last Minute. That’s because we told you in our last episode that many colleges, including some top-ranked public and private ones, were still accepting applications–and will be doing so right through January and February, with some into March and April, and a few even beyond that. So, if you have a high school senior at home and he or she intends to take advantage of that fact, this episode is for you. And perhaps equally important, but less urgent: If you have a high school junior at home, this episode is for your family big time.

We have talked on numerous occasions (most recently in Episode 98) about the dreaded college application main essay or personal statement. This is the place in The Common Application where your teenager is asked to write about 650 words on his or her choice of one of five prescribed topics. Everybody talks about this essay (including us), and everybody has lots of advice about how to produce a memorable piece of work (including us).

But we are going to talk today about a slightly different topic, which we also addressed briefly back in Episode 98. This is one that I have been painfully focused on for the past couple of weeks, and it is the college application supplemental essay.

My personal story goes something like this: I had worked with a number of students here in New York City on their Common App main essays over the course of the fall months. I probably read and edited (that is, edited back and forth with the students) more than 50 of them. Suddenly, just before Christmas, some of these students started emailing me their supplemental essays and asking whether I might give them some guidance and some help in editing them. I made the “mistake” of helping the first few students, and I guess word got around. As January 1 deadlines approached, more and more students sent me more and more supplemental essays. Some kids sent as many as a dozen across six or seven different colleges! Having read and edited with students perhaps 100 supplemental essays in the past several weeks, I now feel like something of an expert on the topic. So, let me pass on what I learned in the trenches.

1. Supplemental Essays: The Word Count

As you probably know, supplemental essays are required by lots of colleges, especially by the highly selective ones. Some colleges require one, some require two, and some require even more (at last count, I put one Ivy League institution at seven open-ended questions calling for answers of various lengths, though not all actual essays). Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately–although we all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.

Many of these supplemental essays seem to call for about 350 to 400 words, or about four meaty paragraphs, which is not really too long when you think about it. Many of them seem to run quite a bit shorter, at about 100 to 150 words, which can be downright restricting if you actually have something to say. Some of them–which are not really essays at all, but more like short-answer questions–ask for just 200 characters (or about 35 words), as one Ivy put it.

Here is the point: These word limits are very different, but they are all way lower than the 650-word personal statement. These lower word limits imply a different style of writing. While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in the main 650-word essay, using lots of descriptive detail and many examples to elaborate the main idea, the shorter essays do not really permit that. They need a much more focused, straightforward, get-to-the-point style if the question is to be answered effectively in far fewer words. Now, I am sure that there are some creative writers among our current crop of college applicants who could write a brilliant poetic response to one of these shorter essay prompts. But, I am going to state, for the record, that I have not found too many of them. Most high school kids are going to have enough trouble writing a coherent, logical response, which gets in some important facts and pertinent background information and perhaps an insightful opinion or two.

So, if you are a parent who is reading supplemental essays in the next few weeks, look for essays that make sense and that are clearly written. They need to make a point (or two or maybe three) both effectively and efficiently. Help your teenager edit out the extra sentences and superfluous words–including all of those that don’t contribute to the point(s). Because we all know that getting down to 100 words can be brutal.

One final note on word limits: As you might already know or could have guessed, one college’s 400-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic. Obviously, as we will talk about in a minute, there are some topics that come up over and over again across many, many colleges. You will quickly learn that it is truly helpful for your teenager to have a drafted long response to these topics and–just as important–a drafted short response for the same topics. That takes some thoughtful and careful editing. Believe me, having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics can help you speed through the supplemental answer nightmare.

2. Supplemental Essays: The Tone

So, let’s talk about tone. I am going to use “tone” here to mean both the attitude the writer has toward the subject (or content) of the essay and the attitude the writer has toward the audience (and by “audience,” we mean, of course, the college admissions staff). I have already said that I think that most supplemental essays call for a straightforward, academic, somewhat formal tone. Yes, the applicant will be writing about his or her personal background, ideas, and even opinions, but not in the words he or she would use if writing to a friend or a relative or perhaps even to his or her own teacher.

This doesn’t mean the essays have to be stuffy or dry or boring. An applicant’s personality can shine through even though the writing is not chatty. Maybe that’s the style applicants should strive for: personality, with decorum and appropriateness.

Let me say that one of the worst problems I found with tone was my high school seniors’ gushing over how wonderful the college is or what great students go there or what fantastic and potentially helpful alumni it has. To take one example, the kids often wrote about a college’s “Nobel Prize-winning professors” or “world-famous professors who are doing brilliant research” or “dedicated professors.” Parents, explain to your teenagers that colleges know how great their professors are and they don’t need a high school senior to tell them. It is fine to be admiring and polite, of course; but, gushing just sounds naïve and unsophisticated. I would settle for “well-known” or “highly respected professors” instead, if you really want to talk about them. So, let’s shoot for admiring and polite, but not over-the-top.

3. Supplemental Essays: The Likely Topics

Some of the topics for the supplemental essays, especially the shorter ones, are a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show his or her creative side. If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a kid choose one of the odder ones–unless that kid is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

However, there are several often-used and often not-optional topics that your teenager should have a longer (about 350 words) answer and shorter (about 100 words) answer for:

  • “Why our college” or “Why is our college a good fit for you” or “How will our college contribute to your goals and interests” or some version of that–As we said in Episode 98, this topic virtually requires your teenager to read up about the college and refer, in the essay, to what he or she has learned from that research. For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or academic strengths or curriculum or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else. If this is one of the longer-length essays, then the applicant will need to reference several things about the college.

Remember: This is an essay that is not easily used from college to college because of the specifics about the college, so tell your teenager to be careful about trying to get double duty out of it. This is precisely the kind of essay that can cause some teenagers to become a bit gushy and overly complimentary, so watch out for that, too. By the way, if this is the only supplementary essay required by a college, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager probably is going to need to save that content for a different essay.

  • “How can you contribute to our college” or “What can you bring to our college” or “Our students live in suites, so what would you bring to your suitemates” or some version of that–This is the reverse of the previous topic, like “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This essay has to be about what traits and skills and talents your teenager has–like commitment to community service or love of research or musical talent or athletic prowess–and how those will be a plus for the college if your teenager is admitted. Again, if this is one of the longer-length essays, then your teenager will likely need to write about several of his or her traits or skills or talents in order to make his or her best case.

It’s hard to write this essay without sounding boastful, so watch the tone. Again, if this is the only supplementary essay, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers and how he or she might contribute to classes or projects in that field; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager is probably going to need to save that for a different essay.

  • “Why are you interested in the field of study you are proposing to major in” or some version of that–We frequently see applicants write a version of this essay for the main Common App essay or personal statement. That is a serious mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about his or her field of academic interest for this supplemental essay if this is one that a college requires. For example, whatever led to his or her interest in art or French or electrical engineering or something else–all of that goes into this essay.

This is also the place to look carefully on the college’s website at the academic degrees and majors listed (and concentrations, if available, within those majors) and to cite the exact name of the degree, major, and concentration, if available, that the college uses. For example, there are many variations of “biology” within some colleges and indeed from college to college; it is important to write each college’s essay on this topic as specifically as possible, using the words that each college uses to describe its own majors, concentrations, and so on. Know, for example, that some colleges offer both a B.A. and a B.S. in Biology. So, what is the difference and which one is your teenager headed for?

It is likely that your teenager already had to declare a major in another question on the Common App, so this should not come as a surprise. If your teenager has no idea what he or she wants to major in, we totally understand that, but it will probably make for a less appealing essay. Tell your teenager to keep in mind that the major and/or concentration written about here is not cast in stone, so it is likely better to write about something specific with as much passion as possible.

As we said in Episode 98, this is the supplemental essay where pre-med majors write about why they are drawn to the field of medicine; if you are going to do that, the story should be a good one. Everyone wants to be a pre-med major, but if an applicant has a compelling reason (and that doesn’t mean “to help people”), then the pre-med choice is more believable. I recently read an interesting essay by a high school senior of Asian background, who wrote that her immigrant parents had always had difficulty when it came time to file income taxes?both because they did not speak English very well and because they did not understand the array of documents they needed to provide in order to complete the forms. The student said that she hoped to become an accountant to help families like hers. I thought that was actually interesting, and definitely not the same thing as every other kid who wants to be a business major will write.

  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or “Write about something that is important to you” or, more specifically,”Talk about the role of sports in your life” or some version of that–We often see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay or personal statement. Again, that is a serious mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about an activity or sport that is especially meaningful or significant to him or her for this supplemental essay topic. This is the place for the story about conquering a fear of water and then competing on the swimming team or serving as the treasurer of your school’s cancer fundraising organization or writing for the school newspaper or playing in the orchestra that toured in China or working at a summer camp for kids or picking up a younger brother or sister or niece or nephew after school every day and watching that child until a parent comes home. Remember: “Activity” can mean something a teenager does for the family.
  • “Describe a community that you are part of” or some version of that–This essay allows for a bit of creativity in defining the “community” that the applicant chooses to discuss. It also, happily, allows for the applicant to take one of the basic essays he or she has written and to bend it cleverly to fit this topic. For example, it could be a school community or church community or community of athletes or community of volunteers or theatrical community or musical community or you name it.
  • “Write about a time when you had to work with someone whose background (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, politics, income, gender identity, or sexual orientation) was different from yours” or some version of that–Many colleges are committed to promoting student diversity on their campuses and are, understandably, interested in how new students will react to that diversity. Specific examples drawn from an applicant’s school or community would probably work best to show whether and how that applicant values diversity. For students who go to school or live in a community that is not racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, or otherwise diverse, this topic might be harder to write about, but could turn out to be very insightful?if, in fact, diversity is one of the main reasons the applicant chose to apply to that college.

Clearly, you and your teenager must look at the totality of the supplementary essays each college asks for and mix and match the ones you have with the ones that are needed. What is one college’s “activity that is significant to you” is another college’s “community that you are part of.” You see how that works?

I recently worked with one high school senior on 11 college applications. We managed to do almost all of her supplementary essays with longer or shorter versions of three basic essays that we established at the beginning: one about her interest in medicine and medical research (and it was a compelling story, which included the biology research she did in high school competitions); one about her brother, who has a life-threatening disease, and the work she does with a community of volunteers to raise awareness and money to fight that disease (and, incidentally, how she plans to continue that work in college); and one about playing and traveling for several years on championship softball teams at school and in the community. You can already see how these work with the topics we just discussed and how they can be shaped to fit various purposes.

By the way, parents of juniors, just to give you the heads up, here are some of the super-short questions your teen might see in the future (you can start getting ready now):

  • Who or what is an inspiration to you?
  • If you could live for a day/have lunch with/ spend some time with someone past or present, fictional or real, who would that be and why?
  • If you had to invent a course to teach at our college, what would it be?
  • What books have you read recently outside of school?
  • What museums, concerts, exhibitions, films, and theatrical performances have you attended recently?

Those should get you thinking. As always, call us, if you could use some free advice!

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Episode 99: College Application Essays–One More Time (Part II)

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

As I said last week, I am still mired in the swamp of college application essays, which I am reviewing and editing for 50-plus kids. As you might recall, my comments last week and this week are based on the essays of kids who attend top-ranked public high schools. Let me just say that all of the kids are smart and that all of them take honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Last week, we talked about the content of their application essays, and this week we are going to talk about the mechanics of those essays–that is, the grammar, the punctuation, the word choice, etc. Having great content is not enough–not for selective colleges anyway. Those essays should also be well written, following standard grammatical, punctuation, and other mechanics rules.

As I said to a class of students at an elite high school a week ago, “You write like third graders.” What I meant was that they were making mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct in third grade. Well, I might have exaggerated a bit for effect. But, seriously, they were making some mechanics mistakes that they should have learned to correct before they went to middle school.

1. The Mistakes

After reading the essays from two classes of seniors at a well-known, highly respected New York City high school (the kind you have to take a special admissions test to get into), I made these points (among others) to the classes. You should make them now with your own teenager:

  • Pay attention to your grammar–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic grammar errors, including split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, no use of the subjunctive, poorly placed participial phrases, and incorrect or inconsistent verb tenses (like inexplicable shifts from present to past tense or vice versa and the total misuse of the past perfect tense).
  • Check your punctuation–Tell your teenager to watch out for basic punctuation mistakes, and by “basic” I mean the punctuation mistakes that kids should have stopped making years earlier. Kids must remember to put a comma before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, to put periods and commas inside quotation marks always, to use semicolons and dashes correctly, and to hyphenate compound adjectives before nouns. Of course, there are more. As I said to the seniors I was talking to last week, “Punctuation rules are not nearly as hard to learn as the physics and calculus most of you are taking right now. Just learn them.”
  • Be careful about your word choice–Tell your teenager not to use a sophisticated or “big” word that he or she would never use naturally in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher). I have found that kids typically use big words just slightly incorrectly and in a way that no educated adult would ever do. The result is that the essay just doesn’t read well; the reader is interrupted by an odd choice of a word that stops the reader in his or her tracks.
  • Avoid wordiness–Tell your teenager not to wander around in his or her sentences. I have often read a sentence of 20 words when 10 words would have said it better. Evidently, someone along the way taught the seniors in the two classes I have been visiting that short sentences are a no-no. That is ridiculous. Sometimes a short sentence makes the point best. It is arresting and causes the reader to stop short with a bit of surprise. A short sentence can be especially effective when it is found among longer sentences. That is great writing.

2. The Big Problem

So, here is the big problem: You can’t really fix a kid’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, reviewed, and submitted on time. The situation is too pressured, and there is too little time. Those of you who have seniors at home are going to need to do the best you can in a hurry. But, those of you who have a freshman or sophomore or junior at home can do a bit better. You can start working to improve your teenager’s writing in a serious way right now so that next fall’s application season will be a lot easier for both of you.

Of all the essays I have read and edited in the past two weeks, I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, especially from a mechanics point of view. I called the young man aside and said, “How did you learn to write like this when none of your classmates seems able to do it?” His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade. She went over his written work and showed him how to improve it. She worked shoulder to shoulder with him in many, many sessions. I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding. He said that he did not enjoy writing. But he sure could do it.

In my experience, both with students and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing. It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom. It is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, with the student watching and learning and absorbing and understanding the reason for every change that is being made. It sounds slow and laborious, and it is. But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.

Here is the rest of the problem. Today’s high school English teachers cannot do that for their students. Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a line by line basis–or even of 100 students or even of 50 students–day after day and week after week while talking through those corrections with each student one by one. And that’s not all English teachers have to do.

So, parents, I believe this is on you. If you can help your own teenager learn to write well, then do so, by all means. If you cannot, for whatever reason, then consider getting the kind of over-the-shoulder tutoring help that is much more likely to ensure your teenager’s success than hoping for the best from school. Ideally, of course, you would have started this a lot earlier–back in elementary school or perhaps middle school. But better late than never.

3. Help from Johns Hopkins University

You all probably know of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. We spoke about it in Episode 47 of our virtual nationwide college tour. It’s an excellent, highly selective university–really as good as any university we have in the U.S. Of particular interest to all of you in the throes of application essay writing, however, is two helpful pieces on the JHU website. First, you can find nine great tips in a section called Tackling the College Essay. You will not be sorry you checked it out.

Second, you can find Essays That Worked, a section that is exactly what it sounds like. There are essays, nominated by JHU admissions officers, from the past four classes of admitted JHU students. The website explains the winning essays this way:

These entries are distinct and unique to the individual writer; however, each of them assisted the admissions reader in learning more about the student beyond the transcripts and lists of activities provided in their applications. We hope these essays inspire you as you prepare to compose your own personal statements. The most important thing to remember is to be original and creative as you share your own story, thoughts, and ideas with us. (quoted from the website)

While JHU is not the only college that puts winning essays on its website, we will say that it does an especially good job of it. So, hats off to you, JHU.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 98: College Application Essays–One More Time (Part I)

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

In November and December, we will be doing a mercifully short series entitled “The Last Minute.” Because that’s what it is–the last minute for finishing up most college applications and getting them submitted. Of course, some colleges have Regular Decision deadlines beyond the first of the year (especially some large public universities), and some colleges have rolling admissions (meaning that they take in and decide about applications virtually year-round). And some teenagers have just brushed off their hands and submitted Early Action or Early Decision applications–but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be ready with some back-up applications just in case they are not admitted to the college that they (and perhaps their parents) hoped for.

In any case, I think we can say that November and December qualify as “the last minute” for many teenagers. That’s especially true for those who have put off doing the hard and sometimes tedious work of applying until now.

Personally, I have been knee deep in college applications lately. I have been helping some kids work on the entirety of their applications (and there are some glitches I would like to talk to you about, Common App staffers). But, in addition, I have been reviewing, advising on, and editing the application essays of about 50 more kids. Man, what I could tell you.

In fact, I am going to tell you about those essays in today’s episode and in our next episode. Think of it as a wake-up call to many of you parents and your seniors. My remarks are based on working with the essays of these 50-plus kids, who attend excellent top-ranked high schools, almost all public high schools.

This week, we are going to talk about the content of the college application essays I have been reading, and next week we are going to talk about the mechanics–that is, the grammar, the punctuation, the word choice, etc. By the way, an essay must be great both in terms of content and in terms of mechanics in order to be noticed approvingly by the college admissions officers, who are swamped with thousands of them. Just think about what that would be like.

Now, we have talked about college application essays before at USACollegeChat. We chatted way back in Episode 22, and again in Episode 49, and most recently in Episode 80 at the beginning of the summer. I wish we could stop talking about this topic, but we can’t do that until your teenagers learn to write. As I said to a class of students at an elite high school a week ago, “You write like third graders.” Soon, I will explain to you why I said that.

1. The Common Application Main Essay

Though not all colleges require essays, most applicants will find themselves writing the Common App‘s 650-word main essay or “personal statement” inasmuch as over 600 colleges take the Common App.

The Common App’s five essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, therefore, as we said back in June, we can tell you what percentage of last year’s applicants chose each prompt. So let’s look at those figures and at the prompts themselves again (quoted from The Common Application website):

 

1. “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” This prompt is the most general and most adaptable to any kid’s circumstances. Perhaps that is why it was also the most popular prompt, chosen by 47 percent of applicants last year. I feel as though your teenager might be at a disadvantage in choosing it, precisely because it was the most popular one (and, I am going to guess, will be again); thus, college admissions officers have to read it over and over again. How many times can they read an essay about scoring the winning point in the big game because a teenager thinks his or her super-meaningful talent is soccer?

Now, I am not saying not to write on this prompt if your teenager’s background, identity, interest, or talent is truly meaningful and hopefully a bit different, but I am saying to think twice and take a look at the other prompts first. One of the most legitimate uses of this prompt, I think, is by kids who have come to the U.S. from another country or by kids whose parents had previously come from another country and still speak their native language at home. Those kids probably do have a background that defines them, at least in part. But one of the best essays I ever read on this prompt was written by a kid who has a form of autism spectrum disorder that makes it very difficult for him to speak easily to others and who now has conquered most of its effects through an amazing amount of therapy and hard work. His essay made me want to cheer at the end.

2. “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” Even though only 17 percent of applicants wrote on this last year, I have read a few essays on this prompt lately, perhaps because I have been suggesting to kids that they try one of the less popular prompts. Here is what I then had to explain to quite a few kids: If you are robbed on the street or if you are bullied in school, that is not a time when “you experienced failure.” You didn’t fail at anything; society failed you. When something miserable is done to you, you didn’t fail. Yes, you might have learned a lesson of some kind that helped you be a success later. But, still, you did not fail. My heart just about broke for kids who wrote that.

3. “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?” This is likely the hardest of the five prompts to write about when you are 17 years old. My view is supported by the fact that only 4 percent of applicants last year chose it. Part of the problem is that it is hard to figure out the scale of the belief or idea that should be challenged. Is it capitalism or is it the dress code at the kid’s high school? It’s hard to challenge a big idea when you are 17, but the small ones can seem inconsequential. Recently, I spoke to an intelligent young man from a different cultural background; he was considering writing about the time he challenged his culture’s tradition of arranged marriages. In the end, he didn’t write on that, but I thought it would have been a great choice.

4. “Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma–anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.” Oddly, only 10 percent of applicants wrote to this prompt last year, but I believe it is a relatively easy choice. The prompt is helped by the fact that it includes the words “anything of personal importance, no matter the scale”; so the problem can truly be something in the writer’s personal or family life. The writer does not have to solve social injustice, and it would be naïve to expect that a 17-year-old could say something unique or unusual about a problem of epic proportions, especially in just 650 words. I recently read the essay topics of several girls who attend a prestigious high-tech high school and who wrote about speaking up for women entering STEM fields. I explained to them that they were not the first females to be working on that problem, though they naïvely sounded as though they thought they might be. A smaller version of that problem–like some bias the female student had to cope with at her STEM-oriented high school–might have worked. So, choosing a problem that is closer to home–something a kid actually has a chance of solving, at least for himself or herself–could make this unpopular prompt a good way to help an essay stand out to the readers.

5. “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.” Interestingly, this is the second-most-popular prompt, chosen by 22 percent of applicants last year. I have noticed that quite a few responses to this prompt have been about the illness or death of a parent, which caused the writer to have to take on more adult responsibilities at home. Of course, I found some of these quite moving, and I imagine that the college admissions officers will, too.

After reading the essays from two classes of seniors at a well-known, top-ranked New York City high school, I made these points (among others) to the classes, and you should make them now with your own teenager:

  • Make a memorable first impression–Tell your teenager to write a great first sentence, which makes the admissions officer want to continue reading the essay (when he or she has hundreds more to read). Many kids write the most boring opening sentence you can imagine. Back in Episode 80, we told you the most common (and boring) ways that students in the U.K. started their college application essays. We begged your teenagers not to do that. Some kids, however, do a great job of that opening sentence (tell your teenagers that they are, in fact, the competition). Here are some:
  • “In the beginning, it was unidentified.”
  • “‘En los primer diez años de mi vida, yo no sabia como hablar.’ That was Spanish for ‘In the first ten years of my life, I didn’t know how to speak.'”
  • “For a typical Bengali Muslim girl, it is a given to learn how to read the Quran.”
  • “They look so comfortable, floating motionless with their eyes closed.”
  • Make a memorable last impression–Tell your teenager to write an extraordinary final sentence, which is his or her last chance to make an impression. I found that, while some kids had a great opening sentence, almost no kid had a great closing sentence. In fact, almost no kid had a great ending at all. While kids could start out with an interesting personal anecdote, they could not end on a similar note. Many tried to end their essays on a grand scale; they trailed off with platitudes and abstract, vague sentences that sounded as though they were on their way to ridding the world of hunger. It is often said that you have just one chance to make a great first impression. Well, your teenager has just one chance to make a great last–and, therefore, lasting–impression, too. As a sportswriter in college, I learned to end each story with some clincher–a line that was clever or funny or surprising or something else. It was one of the most useful writing skills I ever learned.
  • Remember what the point is–If your teenager is telling a story as part of the essay, the story is not the point. What is the point? It’s what your teenager learned from the story or experience or how the experience impacted his or her life. The story is a means to an end; the point is the end. The point is very likely the answer to the question posed in the prompt. Make sure that your teenager doesn’t get bogged down in the details of the story; the reader doesn’t need to know every single thing that happened.       For example, if the essay is about that over-used championship game (even though I have already said that a championship game might not be the best essay choice), then the reader doesn’t need every play in the last five minutes of the game. I am not making this up.
  • Make every word count– For the main essay in the Common App, there is a limit of 650 words, which is not really a lot. Make sure that your teenager doesn’t waste them. I think kids should use all 650 words, if possible.       However, tell your teenager not to write 650 words if he or she has only 550 words to say. Just leave it at 550. Extra sentences that duplicate thoughts that have already been stated will simply weaken the writing and make it less impressive rather than more.

As I have written before, here is some insightful advice that I don’t believe anyone will take. I gave it again recently and am still waiting for a first taker:

  • Tell your teenager to try writing about a few different ideas to see which one works best. I know that sounds like more work?and, in a way, it is?but all writers know that, all too often, many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape. I had an English teacher once who reminded the class that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”?meaning a trial, attempt, or effort. So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays?that is, to make several attempts?before finding the one that actually works best. In other words, kids, you might think that Prompt #2 is for you, until you try Prompt #3 and you see how well that one turns out!

2. Supplemental Essays

Let’s turn briefly to supplemental essays. These are required by quite a few colleges, especially by highly selective colleges. Some of the topics for these essays are, in a word, ridiculous. I can’t imagine why they were chosen, but I guess someone believed that they would show an applicant’s creative side. When given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a kid choose one of the more outlandish ones–unless that kid is particularly creative. However, there are three often-used topics that your teenager should already be thinking and writing about:

  • “Why are you a good fit for this college” or some version of that–I think that this topic virtually requires your teenager to read up about the college and somehow reference, in the essay, what he or she has learned from that research. For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or academic strengths or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else. This is an essay that is not easily used from college to college, so tell your teenager to be careful about trying to get double duty out of it.
  • “Why are you interested in the field of study you are proposing to major in” or some version of that–I frequently see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay. That is a mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about his or her field of academic interest for this supplemental essay. For example, what led to his or her interest in computer science or music or biology or whatever–all of that is fair game for this topic. This is the place that I suggest pre-med majors write about why they are drawn to the field of medicine, and the story should be a good one. Pre-med majors are a dime a dozen, but if an applicant has a compelling story, then the pre-med choice seems more genuine. For example, I recall a young woman who explained that her mother has the breast cancer gene (which she and her sisters have a 50 percent chance of inheriting) and that her brother has a genetic disorder, perhaps related to the breast cancer gene (just now the subject of new research). This young woman made a truly compelling case for her interest in studying genetics and then medicine.
  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or some version of that–I frequently see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay. Again, that is a mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about an activity that is especially meaningful or significant to him or her for this supplemental essay. This is the place for the story about playing on the championship softball team or tutoring in after-school programs for underserved populations or writing for the literary magazine or playing the violin or doing gymnastics or whatever it is your teenager does. One recent essay I read was about participating in an improvisational comedy tournament. That was a new one for me.

Parents of younger students, I am speaking to you now: This likely supplemental essay topic is just one more reason that your kid should have at least one activity that really means something to him or her and that he or she works really hard to excel at–rather than just a bunch of various random activities that fill after-school time and change from one year to the next.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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