Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Money and Banking Part Two

The purpose of all these helpful conversations--with parents, coaches, counselors, maybe even with friends--is to create a bank of ideas from which to make the necessary withdrawals. If you can build a list of personal characteristics that recommend you to the colleges, and another list of possible lenses (events, experiences, thoughts, reflections) that will allow the college admission director to see and understand these characteristics, you can consider yourself ready to write.

Don't sit down in front of your computer and start writing your first application. You will find that the name/address data is easy and then the essays will stop you cold.

Spend some time on your list--ask Mom what she thinks is your strength, ask Ms. Wormwood what kind of student she thinks you are. Once you've got a bank of ideas, try answering one of the application essay questions. If your first answer choice doesn't come easily, try a different option from the list.

Keeping a "bank" of ideas is the best way to feel in control of your answers and never at a loss for words.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Other Resources

Remember that before you write anything, you need to have a focus: a quality about yourself that isn't going to be apparent from the rest of the application. Back on the 23rd, we were talking about the role your parent(s) might play in your essay. If you get along decently with them, you have the opportunity to exploit their first-hand and adoring knowledge of you. Ask them about your talents and strengths and they will have ideas...and interesting stories.

Your teachers may also be willing to share ideas about who you are and where your talents lie.

Coaches can share useful insights.

And please don't discount your guidance counselor. She's busy, no doubt. But armed with an action plan and some ideas about college choices and essays topics, you can capture her attention. It's easy to say, "She blew me off" or "She doesn't really know me." Puh-lease. Get your lazy little butt in there--don't be the slacker kid who blames the system because his application process isn't delivered with a side of fries. Do the homeowrk, build some groundwork, and be tenacious. You'll be surprised how welcoming and helpful your counselor will be if you are persistent, grateful, and "on the case" yourself.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back in Boston

Conferences like NACAC are restorative--good reminders that we're all in this together and that college access is the common goal shared by teachers, counselors, admission personnel, and yes, even students! Their decisions are driven by a desire to provide opportunities and education to everyone who wants to take advantage of it.

This gets muddled when efforts to simplify actually make things harder. So the College Board says the Score Choice option on SAT's is supposed to make the testing stress go away--not! And the Common Application tried to clear the field of all those school-specific essays. But now we have that single essay... and a veritable bee swarm of other school-specific questions. E.g., "How did you get caught?" (University of Chicago undergraduate application 2009)

So hooray for NACAC and hooray for the wonderful hospitality of Baltimore. Let's get back to the challenge of choosing a school where you can thrive and writing your way in.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

NACAC day three

There's plenty to do in Baltimore but one of the day's best was Rebecca Joseph on essays. See her site at Check it out. She is all about giving you permission to tell your story!

Friday, September 25, 2009

NACAC day two

It's raining in Baltimore but we are deep into the critical educational issues of the day: pathways to college, turning down the heat of competition, funding and working toward a simpler FAFSA, making our voices heard in DC.

Among the topics of the day: "The Hidden Essays." These are the supplements and they are becoming more convoluted and complicated. If the kitchen implement question disappeared with the Common Application's ubiquity, its brothers and sisters are back in the supplments.

We'll talk about some of those down the road.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Once a year, those who toil in admissions--school guidance counselors and college admission directors--meet to share thoughts and reflect on their work. This gathering of the National Association of College Admission Counseling begins today in Baltimore. Supporting your own wisdom and the thoughts of your family and teachers, these people are a mainline resource for your planning.

Reports from the front to follow.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mom and Dad

You may find that banking ideas for essays only leads to your own two cents. So use some other resources. Your guidance counselor will have thoughts to share. A favorite teacher will give you a few minutes of brainstorming. And as painful as it might seem, your parent(s) are logical resources at this moment, as well.

You’ve been thinking a lot about yourself recently. They’ve been thinking a lot about you for always 20 years. If you have anything like a working relationship with them--and maybe this is a good time to try to improve that relationship if you don’t-- they should be ready, willing, and more than able to tell you what your strengths are. They will remember some stories and incidents that show you at your best, too.

Don’t ask for strengths and weaknesses. In fact, if the conversation veers toward things you’ve done wrong and ought to have accomplished, head for the exit. You don’t need to be reminded you haven’t won a Nobel Prize recently. But if they would like to conjure up some of the times you were amazing or a list of talents and personal characteristics they admire in you, take notes and see if there are “legs” for any of their ideas.

Note: don’t plan to write about the long ago recollections. Learning to ride a bicycle or your first pet fish is too remote. But the tenacity you showed or the care and attention you brought to something in first grade probably has a parallel from last semester. Stay current and stay positive (and try to remember that your parents want the best for you).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Money and Banking

Have you tried the recipe for a draft posted on September 10th? It’s a good way to get started—especially if you’re willing to lock yourself away from all distractions for half an hour and really think about yourself. But it can be tough to find that time and that focus. All those little voices in your head keep saying your ideas are stupid, have been used before, or probably won’t go anywhere.

So tell the voices to shut up.

And try making some deposits in the bank. Instead of trying to write your whole essay while staring at a blank sheet of paper, make a list of some things you are proud of, some characteristics you think distinguish you, some reasons your friends always include you in their groups.

Then make another list of “hot spots”—moments when you made an important decision, saw something clearly for the first time, or got turned on to an activity, author, or idea.

All of these are deposits in your bank of ideas. Put enough in the bank and you can make withdrawals whenever you need to.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some other resources for bank deposits.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Activity Paragraph

The Common Application asks for a short paragraph in which the applicant explains an extracurricular involvement or recent work experience. The question used to ask for comment on an extracurricular of special importance to you. (No idea why they stripped out the reason for selection.) Here’s the prompt:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below or on an attached sheet (150 words or fewer).

As you are gearing up to work on the essays, we recommend you start here and decide what you want to share in this question. If you decide that the best window into you and your personality is your tenacious commitment to the soccer team, and write your core essay on that topic, you won’t want to use soccer for the short paragraph. Or if your essay is about folding shirts at the Gap and what you’ve learned about “sizing up customers,” you won’t want to give these 150 words to your mall job.

Remember that the essays, short and long, are meant to convey information and insight NOT found elsewhere in the application. So sort out this little answer topic, write it up, and make it vivid, specific, and fast-paced; then turn to the core essay with another “lens” in mind

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Essays show up in surprising places. There'a a substantial essay as well as a shorter paragraph on the Common Application. And many colleges require a supplement that includes additional writing--short answer questions about what you'll contribute to the school or a "Why us?" question.

The best strategy for these additional essays:

1. Make a list of all the supplemental questions you have to answer.

2. Look for reasonable overlap. Every "Why us?" question has to be answered separately since every school is different and your reasons will vary according to what a school offers. But if one school asks for a "failure" and another asks for a "mistake," there's a good chance you can use the same answer for both applications.

3. Don't start writing without your core essay and activity paragraph in front of you. Remember you are trying to convey yourself into the admission office. So your personal characteristics and style should drive these answers as well. If you are trying to show your tenacity, and your core essay is about three years riding the bench for varsity soccer, don't contradict or reiterate that point of view in supplemental answers.

It's not what they want to hear; it's what they need to know. Even in the supplements.

Friday, September 18, 2009

That Kitchen Implement

So what did you choose? A spatula? A sieve? The toaster?

And why? I like to turn things over and see how they work. I focus on the best parts and ignore the rest of life's little hassles. I'm the warm and friendly type.

More to the point, what process did you employ?

I'm guessing you started by trying to think of a few kitchen implements. You made a mental list of options. Then you began to think , "Which one would match up with me? What characteristics do we share?" From there it was easy--"I'd be an electric mixer--no Cuisinart thing--I get the job done by hard work--nothing flashy. Old reliable--that's me."

So do the same for your application essay: think about some events in your life, some activities you've been involved in, a conversation you once had, a book you read, a friend who betrayed you and your reaction--from all the "kitchen implements" of your life, choose one to serve as a proxy for you. Try to pick one that will serve you well, showing as much as possible about who you are and how you roll. Tell that story and show how that event or conversation or transaction illuminates the real you....and you've nailed your essay.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

If You Were a Kitchen Implement....
Many years ago, one of the more creative college admission essay questions was "If you were a kitchen implement, which kitchen implement would you be?" It was probably a University of Chicago question; under Ted O'Neill guidance, U of C has had a long history of interesting and provocative questions featuring the spork, Dennis Rodman, and your particular feelings about Wednesdays.

So if you were a kitchen implement, which kitchen implement would you be? If you had to answer that question, what answer would you give?

Think about that one overnight. Tomorrow we will show you how the way you thought about this imaginary question (it went the way of the dinosaurs long ago) can be the key to all your current essays.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Four Common Mistakes
1. Visualizing the admission committee as a bunch of stuffy old professors in tweed jackets and then trying to write something that will impress them.

2. Trying so hard to be memorable that you end up being eccentric.

3. Writing an essay so predictable and generic that with fewer than three noun revisions (change “my Dad” to “my boss,” change “summer in Maine” to “summer in Colorado,” change the “Mastersingers” to the “varsity tennis team”), your essay could work for 1/3 of the senior class.

4. Forgetting that your counselor and your teachers are your allies and that even your parents know something about this topic.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Five Myths About Application Essays
1. You have to write about something no one has ever written about before (unlikely and high-risk).

2. There’s a right answer to every question (there’s only your right answer).

3. It’s a good idea to be funny or clever or wacky (only if you think they are looking for funny, clever, or wacky applicants).

4. You have to do this alone (every writer asks for feedback, especially in high-stakes settings).

5. Your essay can get you in (only if most everything else makes you an interesting candidate).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Five Key Points About the Application Essay
1. Almost all the questions, in one way or another, ask the same thing: “Tell us about yourself.”
So that means you’re an authority on the topic.

2. The format is not unfamiliar; it’s a regular essay with “you” as the text.

3. The second half of the question is usually more important than the first half.

4. Consider deleting your introduction (or reduce it to a < 10-word sentence).

5. It’s not a punishment—it’s a chance to add life to your application and to pitch yourself outside the numbers.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Why Us?
One of the oldest and most common questions asked by colleges, often on applications and even more often in interviews, is, “Why us?” In one form or another, the admission office wants to know, before they choose you, how you came to choose them. As they look for that “match” of applicant and program, they assume you’ve already done the basic groundwork and have good reasons for wanting to attend their school.

Now of course the tricky part here is that schools aren’t all that different. Does your Mom have a really good reason for using Tide instead of All or Cheer? Ok, it’s not quite the same thing as laundry detergent, but there are classes, books, assignments, a vegan food option, and “not enough school spirit” at every college in the world.

Before you undertake an answer to this question, be sure you’ve been looking for schools based on some sort of “shopping list” of what you want in a college: program, location, size, teams or activities you plan to continue, study options (guest semesters at other schools, co-op programs, or study abroad), faculty-student ratio, facilities. If you have a well thought-out list of what you’re looking for, explaining your intention won’t be hard.

And do try to figure out a few of the distinctive features of these colleges. Some are easy to differentiate: the service academies, for example; engineering schools (duh!) where you can major in English (ah—not so easy—how about Stevens in NJ?); great books programs like St. John’s; block study programs like Colorado College.

Zina Jacque, a veteran and star in this industry, used to say that most seniors apply to at least two schools: the college their parents went to and the college that rejected their parents. That may not apply to you but you’ll need better and more specific reasons for the “Why us?” question than just “I think the excellent faculty and fine facilities will allow me to maximize my potential.” Yuk.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Questions
There’s really only one: tell us about yourself. Some schools ask you that question straight up (“Tell us about yourself” or “A topic of your choice”). Others ask you to tell them about yourself through a choice—a significant experience, a book, an event, a social issue of interest. Even the “what would you add to our community” is really a “tell us about yourself” question. That’s why we suggest you look in before you look out. If you have thought about who you are and what your strengths and talents are, these “tell us about yourself” questions aren’t hard. Even “If you were a kitchen implement, which kitchen implement would you be?” is doable if you’ve decided what you want them to know about you. (Clearly you’d be a sieve if you’re someone who takes the best out of every experience and pays little attention to the rest.)

There is a short paragraph about an extracurricular experience or your employment. And there may be some supplemental questions, most commonly something like, “Why in particular do you wish to attend School X?” These require a different strategy.

But if you want to get started on this essay project—and you need to do that pretty soon—your main concern is the personal statement essay and no matter how you approach it, you’re going to end up “telling them about yourself.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Recipe for a Draft
Under pressure to show something to Mom/your guidance counselor/your English teacher? Here’s a recipe for getting started.

Assemble these ingredients:
paper and pencil (or keyboard and data disk)
an egg timer or stop watch

++ Begin by thinking about yourself. What are my strengths and weaknesses? What are my best qualities? Am I a plugger? An intellectual? A creative type? Curious? Passionate? Determined?

++ Choose a positive quality you’d like to convey to the admission committee, a strength that makes you an addition to any group. (DON’T pick an event or something you’ve done. President of the Nuclear Awareness Club is not a personal quality.) Focus on a quality of your mind or of your character. Now complete this sentence: “I am a very __________ person.”

++ Set the timer for 20 minutes. Pretend you’re taking an exam at high school and the question is, “Tell a story about an experience or time when you showed you were a very _______ person.” Use the characteristic you identified in Step 2. Write or type non-stop for 20 minutes; force yourself to keep telling the story and what it reveals until the timer goes DING.

Ok…that’s it. You’ve got a reasonable rough draft for your application essay! (And we haven't even talked about the question!!) Key concept: start with yourself.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What's the Question-Part Two
It’s encouraging to realize you’re prepared and have practiced the basic skills of the application essay—your school essays aren’t that different from what’s required here. The text is now YOU rather than a book or a battle.

But what you don’t want to do next is sit down at the computer with your list of colleges and start typing. Instead, start with you. Then move to the questions.

Before you ask yourself, “What do they want to hear?” ask “What do they need to know?”

Let’s take a trip into the admission office. Your reader has before her your transcript of classes and grades, your test scores, your recommendation letters, the grid of your activities, and a substantial amount of personal information. She may also have supplemental information like slides, a performance tape, or a coach’s evaluation. So will that constellation of materials cover it? Through that pile of papers, will your reader get to know the person behind the application?

Be careful—we’re not asking what you’ve done that’s not included. We’re asking who you are besides all those numbers and check marks. What personal qualities or characteristics might not come through without a little more light on the subject? Time spent thinking about YOU will pay off. Talk to your guidance counselor, a favorite teacher, your parents. Don’t be tempted to start writing about something that’s happened to you (that trip, the illness, the big game loss) until you’ve thought about personal characteristics—creativity, commitment, energy—that you want admissions to know more about. Choosing the specific lens into your text comes second. First look in…then look out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What’s the Question-Part One
Hundreds of colleges accept the Common Application ( and the essays on this widely-accepted form offer you a choice of one of the following topics:

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix.
Given your personal background, describe anexperience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

Topic of your choice.

The Common Application also requires a 150 word paragraph answer in which you are asked to elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience. There may be additional bits and pieces of writing required as supplements by individual schools (be sure to check the College Specific Supplements link on the Common Application’s website). Non-Common Application schools may have different essay requirements but for the most part, the questions are quite open-ended, the answers aren’t meant to be burdensome, and the purpose is to learn more about you and your motivations as an applicant. And they want to know if you can think…and write.

So before you dive into any of this writing, get organized. Make a list of all the questions you have to answer (hang it on your bedroom door with the relevant deadlines and you will make your life and the lives of your parents a lot happier.)

We’ll walk you through the rest of the process—from list to finished--a day at a time for the next couple of weeks. But don’t start writing yet. Your first job will be to “look in” rather than “look out.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Final Bit of Good News
The essential elements of a good paper for any school assignment? You know. We just talked about having a claim, an idea to present. And evidence to support your claim (see September 3 post). I suspect someone has mentioned the idea of organization to you—a beginning, a middle, and an end. And last of all, there is “correctness.” All four of these elements figure into almost everything you write and they are all important for an application essay. They’re all things your teachers have demanded and all things you’ve strived to put into your writing in the past.

So do focus on having an idea you want Admissions to know about. And evidence to support it. Tell your story with some kind of plan—intro/body/conclusion or story/meaning are both workable options.

But don’t forget this is one time that correctness is really going to matter. Show that you’ve put in the time to do a good job. The applicant who said the one word that would best describe him was “profectionist” blew up his claim in that first typo. And trust me, Spellcheck isn’t enough. Otherwise, they might have admitted the kid who swore that “from that day on, Daniel was my best fried.” Don’t be that kid.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

My Darling My Hamburger
The essays you’ve written for school were organized according to a plan. You were probably encouraged to map out an introduction, a body of supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. Sometimes teachers say, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. And then tell them what you've told them.” While this may seem repetitious, it’s a good way to lead your reader through a complicated argument. And there's no reason why you can't start drafting your application essay with this familiar format in mind: present an idea, develop and support it, return to it for a wrap-up.

But keep in mind that most application essays are short. Typically, there is only one core point being made; it isn't going to be a "All of Shakespeare's early comedies explore disappointed love" type of thing. You are taking a little idea for a walk rather than building a massive structure around a policy that needs to be enacted or an interpretation with multiple sub-ideas. Help your reader follow you by defining what you’re about, bringing on your evidence or story as the middle of your essay, and winding up with a well-thought-out and focused conclusion.

But think of this essay as a burger. Sure, you need the bun to hold it together. But it's really all about the meat. Go light on the bun. Just a little bread at the beginning and the end. (And with only 150 words for your extracurricular paragraph, give almost all your effort there to the substance.) The application can be based on the familiar three-part structure of your school essays; just minimize the introduction and conclusion so that you're offering a decent meal and not a lot of empty carbs.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Good News- part two
Let me prove to you that you are already well prepared—from your high school classes—to write an application essay.

Here’s a bit of writing from an eleventh grade English class:

About halfway through The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker tells Nick the story of Tom and Daisy’s wedding. Jordan discovers Daisy drunk on the night before the wedding, clutching a letter from Jay Gatsby and saying “Daisy change’ her mine.” Sobered up in a cold bath, she only lets go of the letter when it becomes a sodden ball and began “coming to pieces like snow.” The next day she marries Tom with his $350,000 pearl necklace around neck. This scene shows a lot about what happens in the rest of the novel. It makes clear that Tom’s wealth (the necklace) is central to Daisy’s decision to renounce Jay Gatsby. It’s something that controls her, like a dog’s collar. And the reader sees that Daisy will not treat Gatsby (like his letter) very well. The scene is reenacted as the book goes on, particularly when Daisy leaves Gatsby to “clean up” and take the blame for Myrtle’s death while she eats cold chicken with Tom late at night in her kitchen.

The model here is a CLAIM (the bathtub scene explains a lot about the novel) and then EVIDENCE for that claim (descriptions, quotes, scenes from the novel). The writer takes the reader into the story, makes the claim, and then lays out the evidence.

A student might decide that her summer job was a way to show something about their character, personality, and development. Her paragraph might follow this same pattern:

Working last summer for the Sullivan County fire marshal’s office gave me 40 hours of work a week, a pickup truck, a digital camera, a weed whacker, and a lot of time to drive around in Springfield. [this is the part that “takes us there”] I think this job was important for me because [here comes the claim—I’m omitting it so you can think of the ideas yourself]. I often had to…..and when she told me to get off her front yard… I had never had to do that before [this is the evidence—again only suggested so you can use the structural model not the content model].

My point is that writing about history or literature or science requires you to bring the reader into your world, make a claim about it, and prove that it’s so. Same thing with the application essay—bring the admission officer into your world, show him around a little, make a claim, and give the evidence that proves it’s so. Did for Ms. Thistlebottom; do it for Dean Collegium.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Good News
All right, you know what they’re looking for now. The essay is your letter to the admission office, your little piece of yourself sent to illuminate your folder and show that you can both THINK about things and WRITE about them, too.

And yet, almost everyone's first reaction is “I’ve never done anything like this before!”

My first book, Writing Your College Application Essay (College Board, 1986) was a “hold on just a minute” treatise meant to show seniors that they were in fact more than ready to write these essays. These were kids who were happy to turn out 3-4 pages on a scene of importance in The Great Gatsby or The House on Mango Street. They felt totally comfortable culling the events of the Civil War for that one battle or policy decision that captured all the North had going for it and all the South was willing to risk.

So to me their confusion was confusing. New text? Yes--themselves. But the same strategy they’d been practicing for years: find a core characteristic or theme and show how a small bit of the story (in this case, your story) bodies it forth, illuminates it, lights the whole darn thing on fire.

Remember the scene with the pearl necklace and the decomposing note in Daisy Buchanan's bathtub? Can’t we see there the reasons Daisy marries Tom…and how limp were the chances of Jimmy Gatz. So let’s look closely at your interactions as a clueless first-year counselor at Camp O-At-Ka—I think we can easily discover there your limits and your fine points and some interesting reflections.

So not to worry. Trust me. You’ve done this before. Both the thinking and the writing are what you’re teachers have been teaching you for years. New text (but one of your favorites)—familiar process. Take a deep breath—relax—you’re ready!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Actually, before we talk about answers, we need to talk about the askers of these questions. It’s not exactly waterboarding, but seriously, why are they doing this to you???

Here’s how I see it:

I’m a college. I want to pull together an interesting group of people who for the next four years will live and think and read and do stuff on my campus. They shouldn’t all be violinists. They shouldn’t all be hockey players. They shouldn’t all be mathematicians or speakers of French or bilingual kids from El Paso. But they all should be able to think--reflective people who like to kick ideas around and who will have something to say about the books and projects and other people they'll be experiencing. And, just so we can all share the fun, they need to be able to write. Able to think. Able to write.

So I need to check that out. I’ll be looking at the transcripts as my first and major resource for finding my thinkers and writers. But grades and scores don’t tell the whole story. I’d like to hear my applicants pitch their own mojo. So I’ll ask them to talk to me—they can’t all travel to Mauritius (I’m thinking that would be a good place to have a college; Mark Twain said he thought it was the model for heaven)—so I’ll have them write me a sort of letter thing, just a few lines about this and that. With any luck I’ll get some sense of their insight and, with a document in hand, I will certainly be able to see if they can put together a few cogent and correct sentences.

Ta-da! The application essay is born.

So don’t forget why they’re administering this torture:

Can you think?

Can you write?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You know that game Whack-a-mole? That’s what it can feel like. The whole application essay thing can seem like a game that just keeps growing.

“I’ll do that personal essay first. I can write about my work with Saturday School and tutoring Jaycee. Ok, that’s good. Now the activity paragraph. Whoops, Saturday School is my logical choice for that. I guess I need a different topic for the core essay. Do I need a sport? Can I write about the play? Someone said “No essays about trips.” Is that right? And wait, there are these supplements. ‘Why in particular do you wish to attend Alma Mater University?’ Would that be because most days I figure I can’t possibly get in to Alma Mater University? What do they want, anyway? Significant experience? Does that mean someone has to die?”

Don’t let the application mess with your mind. Before you look at the questions, take a good look at the subject of those questions (you). Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to whack the moles and keep them down.