Episode 101: College Application Fees–Oh, My!

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Welcome back after our Thanksgiving break. We hope your holiday was not ruined by college application hysteria. With about a month to go until many application deadlines hit, we would like to take up a practical topic that might affect how many applications your teenager is thinking about submitting in a few weeks. That topic is application fees.

college-application-fees-oh-my-on-usacollegechat-podcast1. The Cost

For some of you, the cost of submitting an application–which is likely to be somewhere between $35 and $75 per application–is not a big deal. Even if your teenager applies to 10 or 15 schools with fees on the higher side, that cost of perhaps $1,000 is not critical in your financial picture.

However, for many families, coming up with even $500 is a significant issue. A lot is written in the education press about the notion that application fees, even reasonable ones, do actually keep some kids from applying to college–especially lower-income kids and first-generation college-goers. All of us interested in improving the educational lives of our nation’s kids should view that as a problem.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, headed by USACollegeChat‘s good friend Harold O. Levy, published an Issue Brief last June, entitled “Opening College Doors To Equal Educational Opportunity: Removing Barriers That Keep Most High-Achieving Students From Low-Income Families Out of Top Colleges and Universities.” (You can listen to our interview with Harold here.) Among the thoughtful recommendations in the Foundation’s excellent examination of college-going is this one: “Automatically waive application fees for students who appear to be from low-income families. Our previous research suggests that not all low-income applicants eligible for fee waivers request them.”

2. The Process

We wholeheartedly agree with the Foundation. Clearly, some families are intimidated by the prospect of figuring out how to get a waiver for those application fees, even though this is one thing that most high school guidance counselors are well equipped to handle. And there are several routes to those waivers.

The Common App makes it relatively easy. In completing the Common App, your teenager will be asked to declare whether and why he or she is eligible for a fee waiver. The question offers all of the choices for confirming eligibility: receiving an ACT/SAT testing fee waiver, getting free or reduced-price lunch at school, meeting family income eligibility guidelines, being enrolled in a government program that aids students from low-income families, receiving public assistance, being homeless or living in a foster home, being a ward of the state or an orphan, or being able to supply a statement from a local school or community official.

If your teenager has already received a fee waiver for taking the SAT or a Subject Test, the College Board will automatically provide four FREE college application fee waivers. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) also has a form that can be used to request fee waivers. NACAC suggests using its fee waivers for up to four colleges.

In most cases, at some point, your teenager’s guidance counselor will be asked to verify eligibility for the waiver. So, it is important to stay in contact with the guidance counselor to make sure that the guidance counselor knows that your teenager has applied for the waivers and that process is working. I think it is fair to say that, just as technology has made it easier to apply to colleges, it has also made it easier to get and use application fee waivers. But that doesn’t mean that some families won’t still be intimidated and/or confused by the process, especially if parents are not native English speakers.

3. Interesting Cases

Let’s look at a few cases of colleges that have recently dropped the application fee. Starting this year, Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME), an excellent small liberal arts college, will automatically waive the $65 application fee “for students applying for financial aid and first-generation-to-college students (neither parent graduated from a four-year college or university),” according to its website. Trinity College (Hartford, CT), another great small liberal arts college, has eliminated its $65 application fee for first-generation college students.

While it is undoubtedly helpful that colleges are making accommodations for families who need them, it was surprising to me to learn just how many colleges–including top-ranked colleges–do not have any application fees at all. For example, Reed College (Portland, OR) eliminated its $50 fee. Its website explains the decision this way:

‘It’s a small but meaningful step,’ said Crystal Williams, Dean for Institutional Diversity. ‘We want Reed to be a more inclusive community and cutting the admission fee levels the playing field at the earliest stage of the game and allows prospective students a chance to explore all their opportunities.’ (quoted from the website)

Here is a short list of great colleges with no fee, in addition to our excellent military academies (you can find them all just by Googling “colleges without application fees,” just as I did):

There are many, many more. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t have been more surprised. We should note, by the way, that some colleges charge a fee for a paper application, even when they do not charge a fee for an online application, like the Common App.

While a lot of colleges we just named are private liberal arts colleges, let’s take a final look at a very different case–and that is The City University of New York (CUNY), with its 11 four-year colleges and seven community colleges. Elizabeth Harris at The New York Times reported on CUNY’s recent application fee changes for this application season:

New York City public school students from low-income families will no longer have to pay a fee to apply to the City University of New York, . . . part of an effort to encourage more young people to go to college.

Under the initiative, all high school students who meet one of a handful of criteria will be able to apply to CUNY free. The city estimated that the change will affect 37,500 students, up from about 6,500 students in recent years. More than half of the city’s public school students who enroll in college attend CUNY schools.

The application fee is $65 per student, but Mayor Bill de Blasio said that while the amount can seem trivial to some, for many families it is not. And for students who are not sure about applying to college, it is one more hurdle standing in the way of their continued education. . . .

In the past, CUNY granted fee waivers to students with the greatest need, according to the city’s Education Department. Now, any student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, who is homeless or in foster care, or whose family lives in federally subsidized public housing or receives public assistance will automatically be given a waiver. Undocumented students in those categories will also be eligible.

The city’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said students would not need to apply to skip the fee, so this requires no extra step. (quoted from the article)

I think this is a great move by CUNY, but let me go one step more. Why should any student have to pay an application fee to a public university in his or her own home state? It seems to me that no application fee should be one of the perks of public higher education–if not for all students, then at least for students in that state. If an application fee is an obstacle to students–as many have said it is–then shouldn’t that obstacle be removed in public higher education? Maybe then we would have more students from low-income families and even middle-income families applying to the great public flagship university in their own state or to the public universities in states that are lucky enough to have more than one.

4. A Final Thought

While application fee waivers can help solve the problem of getting more lower-income students to apply to college and even to apply to more colleges so that they can have a wider selection of colleges to choose from next spring, what about kids from middle-income families and even upper-income families who do not qualify for the waivers? I think we have said this before, but it bears repeating right now: Limiting the number of colleges your teenager can apply to because of the cost of making the applications could be penny wise and pound foolish.

We continue to believe that it is important for kids to have as many options as possible once those acceptance letters come in. If a couple of hundred dollars now means that your teenager is looking at more options next April, then we think it is worth it. We don’t say that lightly, but we know that giving teenagers their best chance to choose a college from among a handful of acceptances can be priceless and can be a sound investment for many years to come. So, it’s still not too late to add a few colleges to the list–especially if you have not maxed out your Common App slots!

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 100: Historically Black College and University Freshman Enrollment on the Rise

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

Well, it is the 100th episode of our podcast, which started out as NYCollegeChat and then rapidly became USACollegeChat when we realized that everything we had to say was useful to families all over the USA and not just in our home state of New York. In the television business, having 100 episodes is a big deal because it means that the show lasted long enough and with sufficient quality to be syndicated (actually, it’s really only 88 episodes, or what used to be four full 22-episode seasons–not that anyone can figure out how many episodes are in television seasons anymore or even when the seasons begin and end). In our case, 100 episodes is about two years at our weekly pace. It’s as though we are now Law & Order–rest in peace, song-and-dance man extraordinare Jerry Orbach. And while we won’t be reaping the financial benefits of all those residuals that Law & Order stars get, we are still happy about the work we have done on these first 100 episodes.

historically-black-college-and-university-freshman-enrollment-on-the-rise-on-usacollegechatToday also brings to mind one of my own favorite podcasts: Sodajerker On Songwriting, brought to you by the U.K. songwriting team of Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, who do fascinating interviews with great songwriters. They are fond of saying that they have the #1 songwriting podcast in the world. Even though they have no credible evidence to back up that claim, they thought that, if they said it enough, it would be true. In the spirit of Simon and Brian, let me say that Marie and I are proud to have the #1 podcast on college issues and college access in the world. Evidence to come.

In light of our recent presidential election and the understandable response to it by many, many Americans, including many Americans of color, we thought we would use today’s episode to pay tribute to our nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This is something we do relatively often, I think, and for good reason. It’s no secret to our regular listeners that I think Fisk University (an HBCU in Nashville, TN) is one of our national treasures, and I won’t bore you here with all of the reasons I think that. Just trust me that it is (or go back and listen to Episode 32, among others).

As recently as Episode 90, we spotlighted HBCUs. We said then that there are just over 100 HBCUs, and that they are public and private, large and small (even very small), faith-based and not, two-year and four-year colleges and universities; some also have graduate schools.

As our regular listeners know by now, HBCUs were founded to serve students who had been excluded from many other higher education institutions because of their race. The three earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War. Those Southern HBCUs share a proud tradition of becoming the first colleges to provide higher education to the family members of freed slaves. Over the years, HBCUs have produced extraordinary leaders in every field of endeavor and thousands and thousands of well-educated American citizens.

1. Enrollment Is Up

Today, HBCUs enroll students who are not black–just as predominantly white institutions (PWIs) now enroll students who are not white. Some observers have said that it had become harder for HBCUs to recruit African-American students now that they are welcome at all kinds of colleges all across the U.S. Well, perhaps we are seeing a change in that trend.

According to a late September article by Timothy Pratt in The Hechinger Report (“Why more black students are enrolling in historically black colleges“), Spelman College, an excellent women’s HBCU in Atlanta, had a record number of applications for spots in this fall’s freshman class. Pratt explains in his article that many other HBCUs have also enjoyed enrollment increases:

Although many schools are still crunching the numbers, about a third of all HBCUs have seen spikes in freshmen enrollment this year, said Marybeth Gasman, higher education professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Some are reversing declines that date to the economic downturn of 2008. (quoted from the article)

Some of the freshman enrollment statistics that Pratt provides in his article are rather amazing:

2. Why Is Enrollment Up?

So, why the increase? Pratt offers some explanations in his article:

Several observers, including Gasman, primarily attribute the surge in interest to racial tensions on and off college campuses. . . . But others say the schools themselves deserve at least some of the credit, for making changes in everything from recruiting practices to out-of-state tuition prices. . . .

Gasman said she is hearing more than ever before from parents who ‘don’t want [their children] to deal with what they’re seeing in other places.’ Black students, she said, ‘are feeling they need a place to go that has them in mind.’ Such calls and emails from parents usually increase after police shootings, she said. (quoted from the article)

And we have to wonder whether calls and emails from parents will increase in light of the results of our presidential election–an event that has clearly worried many black families. Perhaps the subtitle of Pratt’s article says it all:

In the era of Black Lives Matter, some students feel safer on majority-black campuses

But the results of our presidential election also understandably worried many Latino families. Interestingly, there was an article a year ago in The Atlantic that focused on an increase of Latino students at HBCUs. Here is one quotation from that article:

Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that promotes the interests of Latinos in higher education, says that HBCUs generally tend to be more student focused and have faculty who are culturally competent, making them attractive to emerging populations such as Latinos. (quoted from the article)

Gasman was also quoted in The Atlantic article, saying that Latino students often felt more comfortable in the family-like environment of many HBCUs and that low tuition rates at HBCUs were an added plus. Will the election results drive even more Latino students to HBCUs, where they, too, will perhaps feel safer and more valued? Or will the election results drive up enrollment numbers at Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), which we have also talked about at USACollegeChat in several episodes? That’s just a thought.

But let’s look further at both the favorable tuition rates and the caring environment at many HBCUs. Pratt wrote about both in his article:

Cost has long been seen as a plus for HBCUs. Penn’s Gasman estimates that HBCU tuition rates are 50 percent lower than those of their historically white counterparts; about a third of HBCUs have tuition and fees under $15,000. As more attention is drawn to rising tuition and student debt, these schools may become more appealing, said Melissa Wooten, sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of ‘In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt.’

A Gallup poll released last year of black graduates of HBCUs and other colleges also sparked conversation, noted Robert Palmer, a professor in the department of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University. The poll results showed that HBCU graduates were about twice as likely as graduates of other colleges to strongly agree with such statements as, ‘my professors ? cared about me as a person.’ (quoted from the article)

Now that we have given you all of these arguments, what might you do with them before college applications are due in just about six weeks? Well, we believe that you should think hard about putting an HBCU on your teenager’s list of colleges, especially if your family is black or Latino. It is not too late. HBCUs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are well known (like Fisk, Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, Tuskegee, Hampton, and Lincoln), and others are not–just like PWIs. Some are very selective, and others are not–just like PWIs. Is there an HBCU for you? There probably is. We hope you find it.

3. It’s Thanksgiving!

So, in case you hadn’t heard, next Thursday is Thanksgiving. We are going to take the day off. Instead of listening to our podcast, why don’t you just listen to what your kids are saying about school these days? We have been seriously troubled–even enraged–by some of the stories we have heard about how kids have reacted to the results of our presidential election. One of the saddest of those stories comes from Queens, right here in New York City, where a group of white seventh grade students in a class built a wall out of textbooks to separate their Latino classmates from them.

Now, Queens is the most diverse county in the U.S. Our kids here have classmates of every conceivable cultural, racial, and ethnic background from the time they are kindergartners–and now pre-kindergartners, given Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent push for pre-K public education. So, how did the seventh graders in my story end up like that? It is something I am going to ponder this Thanksgiving, and I hope you will, too.

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.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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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.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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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.

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