Episode 147: It’s a New College World, Or Is It?

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It’s the middle of December, and those of you with teenagers who are facing application deadlines in the first week of January either see that the end is in sight or are pulling out your hair.  Whichever it is, I am not sure how much more we can do for you.  I will make our standard offer, nonetheless:  If you are wrestling with a question about a college application or trying to figure out another college or two to add to your list–yes, it’s not too late–then, give us a call.  Quick, free advice is available for the next two weeks.  I am guessing that those of you who are our regular listeners might have had enough advice from us already about making your teenager’s long and short lists of colleges and researching those college options.  But, we are here if you need us.

But, before we take an end-of-year break, I thought you might like to look into the future of U.S. higher education.  Admittedly, this future might come too late for your current senior, but you might have another kid or two at home.  If so, this episode could be for you.

1. Who Is Clayton Christensen?

The prolific author and thinker who is giving us this picture of the future of higher education is none other than Clayton M. Christensen, a well-known Harvard Business School professor.  He is famous in the business community for his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, in which he espoused his theory of disruptive innovation.  The back cover of the book explains it this way:

In this revolutionary bestseller, innovation expert Clayton M. Christensen says outstanding companies can do everything right and still lose their market leadership?or worse, disappear altogether. And not only does he prove what he says, but he tells others how to avoid a similar fate.

Focusing on “disruptive technology,” Christensen shows why most companies miss out on new waves of innovation. Whether in electronics or retailing, a successful company with established products will get pushed aside unless managers know when to abandon traditional business practices. Using the lessons of successes and failures from leading companies, The Innovator’s Dilemma presents a set of rules for capitalizing on the phenomenon of disruptive innovation. (quoted from the book cover)

Then, a decade later in 2008, Christensen became the guy that educators loved to quote when he wrote Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, with co-authors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson.  Well-respected psychologist, Harvard professor, and author Howard Gardner wrote this in praise of Disrupting Class on its back cover:  “After a barrage of business books that purport to ‘fix’ American education, at last a book that speaks thoughtfully and imaginatively about what genuinely individualized education can be like and how to bring it about.”  How to bring it about was, of course, through innovative uses of technology, including really good online instruction.

2. Christensen’s Latest Vision

That brings us to November 15 of this year and an article on CNBC’s website entitled “Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.”  But, here’s some background.  In her article, Abigail Hess writes this about Christensen’s 2011 book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out:

. . . Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business. (quoted from the article)

In the Q and A with the authors on the Amazon website, they say this about their book:

We wanted to show how new strategies, many of them driven by online technology, make it possible to serve more students at lower cost while also increasing quality and improving the learning experience–something we saw in practice within our own university homes. Since then, the world has moved into a major economic downturn. Slow economic growth, high government and household debt, rising college tuition, declining graduation rates, and growing competition from the rapidly growing for-profit higher education sector combined to create a renewed sense of urgency for our message. We could see how the same online learning technologies that can benefit traditional institutions can also disrupt them. So, our message became cautiously optimistic. Online learning, we believe, will either disrupt traditional universities and colleges or create opportunities for them to serve more students and lead the country to greater prosperity. It depends on whether they cling to a model that has changed little in the past 150 years or embrace learning innovations made possible by new technology. (quoted from the website)

The authors continue:

We assert that colleges and universities must break with tradition and find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions, allowing them to once again become responsive to the needs of learners. . . .

Online technology makes a college or university vastly more attractive to a wide subset of students. It gives many people a second chance at learning–i.e. those who cannot afford a traditional college education, those who do not have the flexibility to take part in a full plate of coursework, and late bloomers or dropouts who have fallen behind and now have the chance to catch up.

But online learning doesn’t just offer cheaper education for the masses. It improves the student learning experience across the spectrum by allowing remedial to elite students to learn at their own pace and on their own timetable. Students can receive a fully customized education adapted to their own individual learning style, something that even the world’s best one-on-one tutor would have trouble systematically emulating. Students also benefit from a full array of choices about where, when, what and how they learn. And they can access the best teachers and information faster, connect with more global networks, and all in all consume a much more attractive [product]. In addition, online learning is a cost-saver to the university, which saves on the expense of building and managing a brick-and-mortar facility.

Combine the lower cost of delivery with the lower cost of attendance, and it’s clear that online learning is a major cost advantage. Therefore, we urge traditional colleges and universities to adopt these technologies. (quoted from the website)

I think it is critical to note here that Christensen believes that online higher education is not just a way to make college cheaper or more accessible for more students, but also a way to “[improve] the student learning experience across the spectrum.”  That might be the key here–because I think most of us would agree that online education can make college cheaper and more accessible to students who would otherwise be unable to attend.  But how many of us agree that online education can actually “improve the learning experience”?  I have to say that I don’t agree with that yet, but perhaps the time will come.

Ms. Hess continues in her article:

Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double. (quoted from the article)

So, will online higher education cause small struggling colleges that can’t make ends meet to close; or, rather, will it allow some to stay open by helping them offer cheaper courses and fewer expensive facilities and, therefore, attract more students; or, more generally, will it simply improve the landscape of higher education options available to college students?  Maybe it will do some of all of these.

In recent years, as Marie and I have advised graduating high school seniors going off to college (or staying home for college nearby), we have shied away from advising them to take online courses.  We have worried that it might be hard for kids new to the college scene to stay disciplined enough to keep up with online coursework when there is no required attendance at classes or, at least, expectation of attendance at classes.  And yet, maybe this is the way of the future–a disrupted future–even for first-time, more traditional college students.

No one might know this better than Marie, who has developed online college courses and taught online college courses and taken online graduate-level college courses.  So, is it time to change our advice?  I actually have a longtime colleague who is establishing an online college, complete with full degree programs, as we speak.  Maybe Ben is exactly right.  Stay tuned.

3. Happy Holidays!

We hope that you enjoy your December holidays and that you have a fantastic New Year’s–free from too much college application hysteria.  We are going to take two weeks off, as I fly out to Alaska on business and then Phoenix for a family holiday gathering, two places about as different as you can get.  We will return on January 4 with a new episode.  It is going to be our best one yet.  Happy holidays and welcome to 2018!

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Episode 146: The Biggest College Application Mistake You Are About To Make

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As you head into December and draw near to the looming college application deadlines that follow in the first two weeks of January, we are sure you have a lot on your minds, parents.  Almost all of you are worried about how you are going to pay for whatever college your teenager eventually enrolls in. Most of you are worried about whether your teenager is going to get into his or her first choice.  Many of you are worried about whether your teenager will get into any of his or her top several choices.  Some of you are worried about whether your teenager will get into any of the colleges that are your top choices for him or her.  And a few of you, undoubtedly, are worried about whether your teenager will get into any college at all.

But, here is something you already know:  Parents, you have no control over what colleges choose to admit your teenager, so you might as well stop worrying about that.  On the other hand, here is something else you already know, but rarely think as hard about as that first thing:  Parents, you have plenty of control over the number of applications your teenager submits.  And that is the subject of this episode on the biggest college application mistake you are about to make.

1. What Is the Mistake?

This mistake that you and your teenager are about to make could be the biggest mistake of the whole college application process that has been going on in your family perhaps for the past six months–or longer.  And the mistake couldn’t be simpler to recognize or easier to correct.

Quite simply, make sure that your teenager applies to enough colleges.  If there are a few colleges that you aren’t quite sure about even at this point in December, our advice would be to go ahead and have your teenager apply to them.  One might be a reach school that your teenager hasn’t quite gotten out of his or her system.  Another might be a target school that you thought your teenager didn’t need because he or she had enough of those on the list.  Another might be a safety school that was an interesting idea, but a bit outside your comfort zone.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter what those additional colleges might be.  Just go ahead and have your teenager apply.  Why?  Because having colleges to choose from next April is priceless, as they say.

2. Looking at the Numbers

When we took up this topic about 18 months ago (way back in Episode 77), we quoted from an article by Mike McPhate in The New York Times on April 11, 2016, which explained that students were applying to more colleges than they used to:

In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  By 2013, that group had grown to 32 percent. (quoted from the article)

And, if I had to guess, based on all the articles we read and chatter we hear, I would say that the 32 percent is likely still higher now in the 2017-2018 round of applications.

You already know all of the reasons for that rise in the number of applications–from the fact that The Common Application now makes it so easy to apply to additional colleges with just the click of a button–at least when those additional colleges don’t have supplementary application questions and essays to complete–to lots of talk about how certain colleges are receiving record numbers of applications and, therefore, lowering their acceptance rates.  According to a U.S. News & World Report article by Delece Smith-Barrow last September, California placed eight public institutions on the list of the 10 U.S. colleges that received the most applications for fall, 2016.  Great for public California higher education institutions, maybe not so great for California kids!  As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, UCLA had over 102,000 freshman applicants for this past fall, up another approximately 5,000 applications from the 2016 number in this news article.  Joining UCLA on the list are five other University of California campuses (including the flagship UC Berkeley campus, with about 82,000 applications), two California State University campuses, and two private universities whose names make them sound public:  New York University and Boston University.  Each of these institutions received more than 57,000 applications almost two years ago now.

Of course, as more students apply to more colleges for fear they won’t get into any, more applications are received by each college, and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle.  You might recall that we have talked recently about the fact that high school graduates are shrinking in number and, consequently, that college enrollment is also shrinking.  Experts say that the worst of the admissions crunch might be over for high school seniors and their parents.  Nonetheless, we have also noted that the great colleges and the most selective colleges (which might or might not always be the same thing) are not really hurting for applicants.  And, I don’t think ever will be in my lifetime.  So, getting into top colleges and getting into popular colleges (again, which might or might not be the same thing) will still be a concern for lots of you out there, for sure.

By the way, according to The Common Application website, the “total number of applications submitted through November 1[of this year] was 1,518,131 (+20% over 2016) from 510,912 unique applicants (+13.3% over 2016).”  By November 15, that number was up to almost 2 million applications and another 100,000 unique applicants.  So, it’s not just that more applications are being made; it’s that more are being made under Early Decision and Early Action plans.  And we have said that before, too.

According to a Common Application spokeswoman about 18 months ago, about 4 or 5 applications is what the typical student submitted for admission in fall, 2017.  Of course, in addition, this typical student could have submitted applications to colleges that do not use The Common App, but my guess is that would perhaps just add one or two colleges to the list.

3. What Is the Magic Number?

So, what is the magic number of applications to submit?  The first thing to say is that, according to The College Board’s website, there is no magic number.  I am sorry to hear that because I was hoping there was a magic number that we could just tell all of you and you could quit worrying about it!  But The College Board’s website goes on to say that 5 to 8 applications are usually sufficient to get a good match for a student.

In a more recent July article also by Delece Smith-Barrow at U.S. News & World Report, Ms. Smith-Barrow quotes Matthew Proto, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Colby College, a lovely liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine, as saying, “I don’t know if there is an actual best number.” But she goes on to note:

While there may not be a specific number applicants should aim for, experts say, there is a specific range. Prospective students should have between four and eight schools on their list, experts say. (quoted from the article)

Interesting, because I don’t think that we actually agree with this advice, generally speaking.  The article also says this:

Applicants should carefully weigh the number of schools where they’ll submit applications to maximize their chances of being a strong candidate, and to avoid the drawbacks that can come with applying to too many or too few schools, admissions experts say.

Applying takes work, experts say, and submitting applications to a large number of schools may ruin the quality of the prospective student’s applications. (quoted from the article)

Really?  A drawback to applying to too many colleges is that you will have to work hard on each application so that each one is of high quality?  I would say this to students: “Get over it.  If you can’t work hard enough to do a bunch of applications over perhaps four months (when most of them are maybe 80 percent the same), then I am worried about your chances of succeeding in any college.  Really.”

While we have talked in plenty of other episodes about the variety of colleges we think your teenager should have on the list of colleges he or she will actually apply to (different sizes, different locations, both public and private institutions), we are not going to go into that here.  Today is just a numbers game.

So, what is the right number?  Every expert (you just heard from a couple of them) and every college counselor has a number.  Some of these numbers–like the 4 to 8 or the 5 to 8 we just heard–seem low to me, but maybe that’s because I like teenagers to have plenty of good options available to them next April.

In our first book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, still available through Amazon), Marie and I offered a recommendation of applying to 8 to 12 colleges.  We do know that most–though not all–applications cost money.  We also know that, if you are eligible, you can get fee waivers for many of them.  And, since those of you who listen often already know that I am not very cost sensitive about a decision this important to your teenager’s future, I am going to suggest that several hundred dollars (to even $1,000) spent now on application fees might save your family a lot of heartache next spring.

Now, I am going to say, like the late great Jerry Orbach said in Dirty Dancing, “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”  When Marie and I did our most recent book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students (also available at Amazon), we said that 15 college applications is probably a sensible average, plus or minus 5.  So, that’s a bit more than our earlier advice.  We are pretty sure that we are right this time, and we trust that you can keep your teenager working through this month to produce high-quality applications until the very last one is submitted.  Good luck!

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Episode 145: Supplemental College Application Essays–The Sequel

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First, Happy Thanksgiving to all our listeners!  We hope you will have a lovely day, filled with family and food, and that you will have a relaxing long weekend.  Oh, except for the fact that some of your teenagers will be finishing up college application supplemental essays–or worse still, just starting them–so your weekend is not likely to be all that relaxing.

Those of you who listened last week heard our discussion of the number of supplemental essays that various colleges require, the range of topics those essays can cover, the applicant’s choice of prompts for those essays, and the word limits that are typical for those essays.

This week we have some more advice, and we hope it will be helpful in the coming days.

1.  Supplemental Essays:  The Tone

So, let’s talk about tone.  I am going to use “tone” to mean the attitude the writer has toward the audience (and by “audience,” we mean, of course, the college admissions staff).

Let me say that this is one of the worst problems I find with supplemental essays, perhaps because they are too often tributes to an individual college, written by carried-away teenagers.  The problem with the tone of many supplemental essays is that teenagers gush over how wonderful the college is or what smart students go there or how much praise the college receives in national publications or what great extracurricular activities are available or how brilliant its professors are.  Really, parents and teenagers.  Colleges know how great they are (or like to think they are); they don’t need a high school teenager to tell them.

It is fine to be admiring, of course; but, gushing just sounds naïve and unsophisticated.  Have your teenager try, instead, to point out specific factual things they admire about the college (that is, things that are worth admiring)–like its biology department is ranked in the top 10 in the country, because that is factual, not gushing.

In talking with students, I have realized that it is very hard for them to see this problem in their own writing.  You might try reading aloud what your teenager has written to see if it is easier to recognize that way.  Here is one example, which was written by one of my advisees as the conclusion to a prompt about why she was interested in attending the university in question:

The programs offered, opportunities provided, and the praise the school has received for being one of the top colleges in the nation are some of the many reasons why I believe University X would be a good fit for me.

As I explained to her when I read this, “the praise the school has received for being one of the top colleges in the nation” is neither specific nor concrete.  Who gave the university that praise?  Where was it published?  Isn’t this just heaping it on?  And, by the way, I explained that this University is not actually one of the top colleges in the nation.  I said that, if you named the top 50 colleges in the nation, this University would not be on the list, and it might not even be on the list of the top 100 colleges in the nation–although it is a nice private university in the South and one that is very popular with teenagers in our part of the country.  So, her statement in the essay was just too extreme, too flattering, too effusive, too gushing.  As a matter of fact, I doubt that even the University itself believes that it is one of the top colleges in the nation.

Here are two more examples from essays written for that same prompt:

I know that the city University X is located in is a prime destination for those who want to immerse themselves in the glorious visual and performing arts available at the school and within the city.


As an undergraduate at University X, knowing the variety of career opportunities available for me would not only make me feel more confident and self-assured when it comes time for me to look for work, it would also make me feel more excited knowing that I would have nearly endless possibilities provided for me.

I, too, believe the arts are “glorious” and wish that career possibilities would be “nearly endless,” but both words are too exaggerated and too over-the-top to be taken seriously by an admissions officer.  This is the kind of writing you need to watch out for, parents.  By the way, the teenagers who wrote these are smart, and they go to great high schools.  They have had a lot of extracurricular experiences in the U.S. and travel abroad.  They are not naïve.  And yet, their writing hasn’t quite caught up to them, yet.

2.  Supplemental Essays:  The Likely Topics

There are several often-used and often not-optional topics that your teenager should have a longer (about 350 words) answer and shorter (about 150 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–The unsuccessful examples we just shared with you were for this topic.  This topic requires your teenager to read up on the college; to refer, in the essay, to what he or she has learned from that research; and to match what he or she has learned about the college with his or her own interests and pursuits.  For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or award-winning academic departments or core curriculum or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else–along with what the applicant thinks about them or admires about them.  If this is one of the longer-length essays, then the applicant will need to reference at least four or five things about the college.  Whatever the applicant references should be as specific as possible.  Here is a good example:

University X’s community service requirement also makes the University stand out in comparison to other universities. I find it intriguing that the requirement is actually built into the curriculum and that there is such a wide variety of community service activities offered, including internships, public research projects, and faculty-supported projects. One program that stood out to me was volunteering with an organization that trains dogs to help people with disabilities. I used to volunteer at a local animal shelter to walk and feed the new dogs. So, this opportunity would be something that I would welcome.

Do you see how specific that is–and memorable?  But 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. By the way, if this is the only supplemental essay required by a college, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a major or a field of study that the college offers as one important thing to mention.

  • “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 he or she 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 supplemental 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 activities or research in that field.

  •  “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.  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?

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 him or her to keep in mind that the major written about here is not cast in stone, so it is likely better to write about something specific with as much enthusiasm as possible.

  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or “Elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities” 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.  Remember:  “Activity” can mean something a teenager does for the family.

Here is a recent example of an out-of-school activity essay that I think worked particularly well, with a limit of 250 words:

Last year, I began taking Czech lessons at the Czech Consulate in New York City. I had been studying French in school, but could not fit both AP French and AP Biology into my schedule. I chose AP Biology, but I was not ready to give up studying a language altogether. To understand why I chose Czech, I should tell you about my grandfather.

My grandfather grew up in a rural town in North Dakota. The child of Czech immigrants, he spoke primarily Czech as a young boy, hardly using English until he started school. Because his English was limited, his classmates called him “stupid.” He grew to hate his Czech roots. Although he learned English quickly in school, he carried with him a resentment of his Czech heritage, including his native tongue.

As soon as he was old enough, my grandfather joined the U.S. Army and left home. Eventually, he proved his childhood classmates wrong. He became a scientist and traveled the world while working for the United Nations. In time, he had a change of heart about his roots.

My grandfather taught me to honor my Czech heritage as he had to teach himself to do. Our trip together to the Czech Republic to visit distant relatives was evidence of that. When I could no longer study French at school, I knew immediately that I wanted to find a Czech class to take. It is my way of paying tribute to where he and I have come from.

So, not everyone has a Czech grandfather.  Here’s another essay that could be a bit more common, but it is also effective–again with a limit of 250 words:

The time I’ve spent working and creating art at the Art Workshop Experience (AWE) will always be memorable. The first time I attended AWE’s summer session, I was just 10. I have been going back ever since, the last several summers as an intern. The staff and the kids who come back year after year are like family. The summer session, staffed by five counselors and three interns, enrolls about 50 kids?all painting and drawing and sculpting and working in close quarters in a large one-room studio. It is an amazing way to spend the summer.

At AWE, there are no set lessons or prescribed techniques. Kids are allowed to work on any art project of their choosing; the counselors and interns are there simply for guidance. As kids work on their pieces, they develop their skills and their understanding of techniques, with few limits that would restrict their creative choices. Opportunities are nearly endless for those who are willing to indulge their imaginations.

Five years ago, I painted my cat at the summer session. Someone saw it at AWE’s annual gallery show that August and actually wanted to buy it. I couldn’t have been more surprised?or delighted. Without the encouragement of the staff, I never could have sold a painting at the age of 12. Although I may never sell another painting, I am proud to have spent the past seven summers with an organization that can make something like that happen for a kid.

One thing that the Czech grandfather and AWE essays share is a great sentimental ending.  A couple of episodes back, we talked about the need for a great last sentence–the one that leaves the lasting impression about the applicant in the mind of the college admissions official.  Well, here are two good examples.

  • “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.

You and your teenager must look at the totality of the supplemental essays each college asks for and mix and match the ones you have with the ones that are needed. One college’s “activity that is significant to you” is another college’s “community that you are part of.”  You see how that works?  Be creative in using what you have, especially if you have a great essay that just needs a little tweaking to match a different prompt.

3.  Our Thanksgiving Break

Since we were anxious to get you this advice to use on your Thanksgiving break, we did not take this week off.  But, fair is fair.  We are going to take our break next week.  So, just keep writing those essays until we are back together on Thursday, December 7.  The college application deadline clock will really be ticking by then!  Happy Thanksgiving!

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Episode 144: Supplemental College Application Essays–Oh, My!

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

I really was not going to do this episode.  I resisted doing our last two–one episode about The Common Application main essay (that 650-word statement that all seniors’ parents and teachers have come to loathe at this time of year) and one episode about the sad fact that our high school seniors in the U.S. cannot write.  I was glad when last week was over, and I thought that I could move on to other topics of importance in the college applications season.  And yet, I am drawn back into the quagmire of college application essays.

It gets worse.  When I started putting this episode together–this episode that I did not want to do–I figured that I could keep it short and sweet.  When I hit nine pages of text, I realized that it was not short (nor was it sweet, actually).  And so, I have done something else that I didn’t want to do.  I have planned for two episodes on this topic of supplemental essays.

Of course, I thought you might go back and re-listen to Episode 106, where we talk about supplemental essays.  But I fear you won’t, and so I am going to reprise it here and add some new, updated thoughts.  Why?  Because I have just spent a fair number of days working on college application supplemental essays for a few teenagers I work with individually–and they have confirmed my worst nightmare.  Our high school seniors cannot write these supplemental essays any better than they can write anything else.  I base this bold statement not just on the teenagers I am working with now (who are, by the way, bright students with excellent grades and admission test scores), but also on the teenagers I have worked with over the past several years.  I have read–and edited–hundreds of these supplemental essays.  And I still have more to read and edit ahead of me this season.  If I keep working with more and more teenagers every year, soon I will have 10 episodes on this topic.

Anyway, the last time we chatted about this topic was last January.  Let’s see what, if anything, you remember–in case you were listening then.

1. How Many and the Choice, If You Have One

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 as many as four. If you include short-answer open-ended questions that require just a sentence or two or a list of things–for example, cultural events you have attended recently–that number of supplemental “essays” for some colleges could go up to seven.  Yikes!

Let’s look at the University of California system–a public university system with a zillion applicants (okay, zillion might be a slight exaggeration).  But not much of one.  UCLA, one of nine University of California campuses, had over 102,000 freshman applicants for this past fall.  So, how UCLA, for example, can process four essays from each applicant is, frankly, beyond me.  But the University of California has some great universities–including the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA–and some very smart people.  Here are the directions for University of California applicants for what are called the “personal insight questions” (quoted from the University of California website):


  • You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
  • Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
  • Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you: But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.

Keep in mind

  • All questions are equal: All are given equal consideration in the application review process, which means there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.
  • There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions: It’s about getting to know your personality, background, interests and achievements in your own unique voice.

Questions & guidance

Remember, the personal questions are just that–personal. Which means you should use our guidance for each question just as a suggestion in case you need help. The important thing is expressing who you are, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

  1. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

  1. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

  1. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you–just to name a few.

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

  1. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”

  1. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom–such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs–and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

  1. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place–like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

  1. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?

From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.

I think that these eight topics are sensible and fair, if not especially creative.  On balance, I think that is a good thing.  I believe that teenagers can actually write answers to these, and sometimes that is the biggest hurdle.  (To tell you the truth, I have read some quirky or overly philosophical prompts that I could not respond to at all.)  And yet, four essay questions of 350 words each is a lot of writing–especially if an applicant might have used up the answer to one of the prompts in the main Common App essay, which seems quite possible to me.

Sometimes, the topics for the supplemental essays, especially short ones, can be a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show a creative or funny or witty side.  If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a teenager choose one of the odder ones–unless that teenager is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

For some examples of essay topics that can be a bit odd, let’s look at the University of Chicago.  If you don’t know the University of Chicago (one of those private universities whose name makes it sound like a public university), it is an outstanding, highly selective private university in, obviously, Chicago.  Here are the directions for University of Chicago applicants (quoted from the University of Chicago website):

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see from the attributions, the questions below were inspired by submissions from UChicago students and alumni. . . .

Required Question:

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” ? Joseph Joubert

Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?

Anonymous Suggestion

Essay Option 2.

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here.

-Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018

Essay Option 3.

Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.

-Inspired by Dani Plung, Class of 2017

Essay Option 4.

The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” Tell us about your “armor.”

-Inspired by Adam Berger, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5.

Fans of the movie Sharknado say that they enjoy it because “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Certain automobile owners prefer classic cars because they “have more character.” And recently, vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because it is perceived that they have a warmer, fuller sound. Discuss something that you love not in spite of but rather due to its quirks or imperfections.

-Inspired by Alex Serbanescu, Class of 2021

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

And, by the way, some of the past prompts are truly wacky.  Choosing the right prompt in this kind of situation can make all the difference.  When I work with teenagers on this, we always talk through several options before settling on the one that seems the most appropriate and the most likely to yield a convincing, insightful essay.  And, yes, sometimes we get one written and realize that it just doesn’t work, and we have to switch prompts and start again!

So, the University of California and the University of Chicago are at the extremes, in terms of number of essays required and provocativeness of essay topics, respectively.  Parents, you might be thankful now if the colleges on your teenager’s list have just one or two slightly boring supplemental essays to complete!

2. The Word Count

Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately (though I just saw one from Tulane University, where the upper limit was 800 words!).  We all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and that it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.  Many 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 150 to 250 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 League school put it.

Here is the point:  Lower word limits imply a different style of writing.  While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in The Common App 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.

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.

One final note on word limits:  As you might already have guessed, one college’s 350-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic.  As we will talk about in our next episode, 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. Having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics–like an extracurricular activity that is particularly meaningful to you–can save a lot of time.

3.  No Thanksgiving Break:  New Episode Next Week

Next week is Thanksgiving, and we were going to take a holiday break.  However, we realized that the long Thanksgiving weekend might be just the time that some of you will use to work on supplemental essays for applications that will be due just weeks later.  So, we will have a new episode next week, which will cover the rest of the advice we have on supplemental essays.   We will bring it out on Tuesday, instead of our usual Thursday–just in time for the Thanksgiving celebration!

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Episode 143: High School Students Can’t Write

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

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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