It’s College Essay Time!

Summer is the best time to write your college application essays, and it’s a process you can and should start now!

The essay writing process might be challenging at times, but it should also be rewarding. Our goal is not only to help students write essays they are proud of and that showcase who they really are to colleges but also to help them improve as writers, so they arrive at college confident and ready to tackle higher-level writing requirements.

Meet our essay experts:

Meet Emma: Emma grew up in NYC but left for Phillips Academy Andover, where she boarded all four years. Before starting at Harvard in 2008, Emma took a gap year during which she worked at a nonprofit in Ghana, taught English in South Korea, began learning Russian in St. Petersburg and took care of horses in the French countryside. At Harvard, she concentrated in Russian History and Literature, studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia for multiple summers; she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. After graduation, she returned to New York and worked in book publishing for two years before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a poet, where she taught literature and creative writing. She has since taught composition at various universities, worked as a professional freelance editor, and privately tutored high school students in writing.

Meet Kris: A New Yorker born in Lithuania, Kris graduated from Harvard with a BA in economics, and completed his MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received the top student and post-graduate fellowship funding, and where his thesis advisor was Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding. In between those two degrees, he worked in finance in Vietnam, started an education consulting company in China, and taught lawyers in Lithuania. His essays and photography have appeared in various outlets, including The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine, The Browser and The Millions. He splits his time between New Mexico and New York and is working on a novel.

Want to work with Emma or Kris? Contact us to schedule a free, 30-minute consultation call and learn more about our essay process!

 

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June Action Plan – By Grade

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

 

Juniors:

  • It might seem like a silly piece of advice, but many students are not aware that each school has a set of application instructions that are not located on the actual online application. I suggest you read them before tackling the application process.
  • As you begin your essay work, open a Common App account, and begin filling out the base data (Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities). Unlike in past years, if you open up an account now, it will not be deleted before August 1, 2019. There is no better time than now to get your CA base data underway.
  • If you’ve finished testing, it is time to review your college list and application strategy. Pinpointing your top 5 or so schools now can help you maximize your time over the summer doing research and outreach.
  • If you are not finished testing, continue to prep.
  • If you have summer college visits planned, take advantage of the summer slowdown, and prepare meetings with your department of interest ahead of time. Interview if possible, too. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. Extended research and outreach can make a big difference in your admissions outcomes.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). If you do, aim to complete it over the summer.

Sophomores:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Come up with a plan for test prep. Summer before junior year is a great time to begin test prep! Here are a few resources to get you started if you are not quite ready to work with a tutor 1:1: = PSAT, ACT, SAT, SAT on Khan.
  • Thinking about how to explore your academic interests this summer? I hope so! There are tons of options, and you should be doing something “academic” this summer if possible. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edX, Ted Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also always beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

Freshmen:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Explore your academic interests this summer! If you are unsure what they are, that’s even more reason to get out there and do some exploring. Figuring out what you do not like is often just as important as figuring out what you do like. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edX, Ted Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also always beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

 

 

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May Action Plan – By Grade

With AP exams, the SAT/ACT prep, and finals coming up, May is a busy month so the action plan is light. Juniors should be gearing up for essays in addition to finishing up testing!

Juniors:

  • Consider this process as you would a class from here on out! You’ll need to carve out time for it every week.  Starting early means you can be flexible—but this won’t be the case later this summer and once school starts.
  • Have you pinpointed two teachers to ask for letters of recommendation? Now is an excellent time to decide who to ask.
  • Some colleges have opened up their on-campus interviews. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. And optional should not be considered optional!
  • Open a Common App account. Accounts rollover year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account and familiarize yourself with the system.

Sophomores & Freshmen:

  • Firm up summer plans and a tutoring schedule if you plan to start prep for the SAT, ACT or Subject Tests.
  • Work on your resume!

Recommendation of the Month:

Someone recently reminded me of the power of Ted Talks. I was sent this list a while back. I can’t recommend highly enough taking some time to do a quick search on TED for talks in your areas of interests. They are fascinating, and, great fodder for essays.

 

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Apply Texas Announces New Freshman Essay A (The Personal Statement Essay)

UT has a new Essay A prompt and we like it. It is very open-ended and allows students to talk about something outside of their “home environment” (although we encouraged students to think about that broadly) and get creative if they want. It also means, in most cases, you can plan ahead and use your Common App and/or Coalition essay. There really is no reason to write a different personal statement if you don’t have to—all personals statements should be “your story.”

The new prompt:

Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

The old prompt:

What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.

From Kevin at Tex Admissions (aka the UT Admissions Guy):

UT has yet to officially update their admissions site as of early April, but I’ve confirmed this is the new Essay A prompt. They also anticipate changing all or some of the three short answer prompts. It’s almost certain that they will keep some variation of the “diversity” short answer that they introduced and almost immediately retracted in early August 2018. I have a feeling they will throw out the Academics short answer since there would be a lot of overlap with this new prompt.

Although some people disagree, and at some less selective schools they are unimportant, essays matters at selective schools. Our students start brainstorming for the personal statement in May and June, and that same brainstorming also rolls into brainstorming for supplemental essays, which we start as they are released over the summer. Because we emphasize a process that is as low stress as possible, our students head back to school in the fall with a majority of their essays written and apps completed.

To learn more about our essay process, and to see if we would be a good fit to work together, contact us for a free consult. 

 

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Will Your 11th Grader Be Away This Summer?

Who you are doesn’t change between the second half of junior year and the time you apply to college, so why wait any longer to write your personal statement?

If your 11th grader is away at camp, traveling, or at a summer program this summer, you will want them to have this crucial component of their application completed before they go. Trust me, coming back home in August with no parts of the college application complete can make for an insane end to summer vacation and time-crunched fall. It does not have to be this way.

For the past couple of years, we have had a small group of students write their personal statement over their winter break or shortly after the new year. The result: far less stress on the college application journey because one of the most important parts of their application was already complete. Same amazing writing we always help students produce, even less stress. That is what we are all about!

This year we are formally offering weekend-long 1:1 personal statement bootcamps for motivated, summer-time-crunched, or any juniors who simply want to get ahead in addition to our standard 1:1 essay expert service and comprehensive college counseling packages, which include essay work.

Space is limited for winter 2019. Contact us today to discuss scheduling! Your student will thank us later when they are confidently ahead of the game.

 

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Juniors: Prep Now to Write Your Story for College

My January recommendation for juniors?

Sign up for YouSchool’s new Backstory course. Over four weeks, you will be guided through a series of video exercises with questions and prompts to self-reflect about all the foundational elements of your backstory. From it, you will better you understand how the elements of your backstory have set you on your path in life.

The process works: YouSchool has taken thousands of people through it and knows that if you do the work, you’ll gain a clear sense of what story you’re living in. You are also provided the structure to engage in deep conversations with people you trust (parents, teachers, friends, college counselors!). Backstory is a fantastic way to gear up for personal statement writing.

 

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One Weekend = Finish Your Personal Statement

Who you are doesn’t change between the second half of junior year and the time you apply to college, so why wait any longer to write your personal statement?

For the past couple of years, we had a small group of students write their personal statements over their winter break or shortly after the new year. The result: far less stress later in the year because one of the most important parts of their application was already complete. Same amazing writing we always help students produce, even less stress. That is what we are all about!

This year we are formally offering weekend-long personal statement bootcamps for motivated, spring/summer-time-crunched, or any juniors who simply want to get ahead.

Space is limited for winter 2019. Contact us today to discuss scheduling!

Advice on College Essays

I received a WOW Writing Workshop email the other day with the subject Are Your Students’ College Essays Good Enough and some text that noted: As the early application deadlines approach, it can be tempting to “fix” your students’ college essays. We don’t want you to do that; it won’t help your students (and it might ruin the essays).

All I could think was wow, this is especially true as it pertains to parent edits! And counselor edits, and friend edits, and English teacher edits…

Kim Lofton’s Tips to Review College Essays is excellent (when thinking about the personal statement specifically), and I want to share a few of them:

“Begin by letting go of any preconceived notions about what makes a good essay. In fact, we suggest replacing the word “good” with the word “effective.” It’s important to let each student write their story in their own voice using their own words.

There is no rubric for an effective college essay, but the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:

-Answer the question.
-Showcase a positive trait or characteristic.
-Sound like a high school student.
-Illustrate something meaningful about the student.
-Demonstrate reflection.”

 

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Do Perfect Students Have Nothing Interesting to Write About?

I am especially fond of Janine Robinson’s many posts on writing anecdotes. This month I am “final reviewing” many personal statements. In doing so, I’ve been thinking a lot about topic generation and how to get students to dig deeper to find topics that I have not read a hundred times before. It always bothers me when parents complain that we took a few hours to brainstorm topics; I’m not sure they understand that pinpointing a decent topic can take a lot of work. It is disheartening that so much digging needs to take place at all, but it often does. Anyway, Robinson’s blog post on essay topics has some interesting points, so thought I would share.

From what I’ve seen working with college-bound students for the last decade, many of our most talented, driven and intelligent teenagers are living such parallel, over-achieving lives that they struggle to find an effective essay topic. These are the same kids, many targeting Ivy League educations, who will need bull’s-eye essays to have even a shot of getting in.

It’s sad, unfair and ironic: The hardest working students have no time for a life. Here’s an example of a student I worked with recently:

The mom sent me an email summarizing her daughter’s background:

The daughter was interested in history and computer science, and also in theater (worked on every school production since 7th grade). She also did Model UN (with accolades); was editor of the school newspaper and active in debate club. Also, she was captain of the robotics team, the chess club and some other academic team. She had built her own computer and the family’s home service. She also participated in three varsity sports. The daughter’s GPA was stellar and test scores excellent.

Where did she want to go to college?

“Her high school counselor thinks she has a good chance at the Ivies,” mom wrote.

Sure sounds like this girl could have her pick of colleges, right? Good luck with that!

Acceptance rates at the prestige schools are at all-time lows. Even if she wrote an outstanding college application essay, her chances would be slim to none at the most elite schools. The real problem, to me, is that this student isn’t unusual.

Most of these applicants have similar off-the-charts grades, test scores and extracurricular dossiers. With everyone at the top of the heap, the focus often turns to their college application essays. The tragedy I mentioned in my sensational headline is that these are the exact brilliant students who have the hardest time coming up with an interesting and meaningful essay topic.

Why?

They are too busy doing the same things. Team sports, band, drama, clubs, and internships. Model United Nations. Summer camp. Mission trips. Robotic competitions. And mostly…studying.

Even though their activities and experiences are truly character-building and lesson-teaching, the highly orchestrated nature makes them difficult to mine for gritty, organic or relevant life-shaping lessons. That’s why one of my first questions to students I tutor is whether they had held a job. Summer jobs. Working part-time during school. Even hourly work. These are a gold mine for topic ideas, mainly because they fall outside that high school student bubble where everyone does the same thing. Suddenly a student has to deal with getting stiffed by a customer at a restaurant where he waits tables. Or a student has to find a way to get his lawn mower to job sites without a car. Maybe a student gets passed over to caddie at a golf club because she’s Hispanic.

I advise students to recall “times” they faced problems in their past to discover real-life moments that helped shaped their thinking in some way. If they can show themselves in action handling that issue, their stories (and essay topic) will reveal a piece of their unique personality. If they also reflect and explain what they learned when handling that problem, they also can reveal their character.

Personality + Character = Awesome Personal Statement Essay

The sad thing is that the most high-reaching students often have not had a summer job. Not only have they not had time in their activity-packed lives to hold a job working at Subway, or a clothing boutique or for their parent’s grocery store, but they simply don’t have ANY FREE TIME. Many of these students are distressed when we start brainstorming an essay topic. They say the same things as all students–“There’s nothing interesting about me.” I ask them what they do when they do get a rare moment of time to themselves.

They pause.

Think.

Think some more.

“I like to hang out with my friends,” many tell me. Oh yea. Friends. How sad is this??

Unfortunately, hanging with friends doesn’t often yield great essay topics, so we keep fishing around in their past to find something they have done where there weren’t a lot of adults around making sure nothing went wrong.

Perfect life. Nothing happens. No story. No story. Dull essay. Talk about pressure!

These students have worked so hard, for so long, and truly sacrificed a lot to be perfect students, the exact kind who should get into the most competitive college and universities. I believe many should simply let go of the Ivy League fantasy and focus on the several hundred or more outstanding educational institutions that don’t have Ivy status. Boy, would that chill out this frenzied application world almost overnight. I believe the kids would let them go without a second thought if their parents went first. I know I’m old school, but I have to note that many of my achieving students also mention “My anxiety” or “My depression” as possible essay topics.

I don’t think that’s just a coincidence.

I remember one student who was so desperate for an interesting experience that he planned to borrow an experience that happened to his mother when she was young. And guess who’s brilliant idea this was? Yup, mom’s. But for many of these perfect students, who have engaged in more interesting and challenging activities than many people do in a lifetime, they can’t find that magic topic or everyday experience to nail their college application essay.

It’s the overachievers who come from privileged backgrounds who have it the hardest. Somehow these students do have time for international vacations, second home visits, ski trips, spa outings, sailing, riding horses and golfing (I’m not trying to be snide; this is what they tell me). It’s possible to extract interesting experiences and write compelling essays that involve these privileged activities, but I haven’t seen many. Students who have had to step in to help their family or their own financial well-being are the lucky ones—at least when it comes to essay topics.

If they lived on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and helped raise the pigs.

If they helped their mom clean houses on weekends.

If they ran the cash register at the family laundry mat.

If they had to get a summer job to earn spending money (HINT: That could be any kid.)

Perfect Students: Dig Harder for Your Essay Topic

This is where “real-life” happens, and no matter how hard you try, it’s much easier to write about, extract relatable experiences and moments, and draw out life lessons when life involves a degree of struggle. I feel for these overachievers. They are hard-working, well-intentioned and great kids. For some, this may be their first taste of how life can sometimes be unfair. Don’t despair, though, if you are a perfect student who has done all the right things, plus some. You will still get into the most awesome schools.

When it comes to your college application essay, and finding a killer essay topic, you are going to have to once again be that kid who goes the extra mile. You can and will find great topics. They will just take more digging and imagination, possibly more research and self-reflection. I push the idea of the “mundane,” over the impressive. Works every time.

Even if you are one of those determined students who does everything, along with thousands of others doing the exact same thing, you are unique. You just need to work hard to find some type of problem (challenge, obstacle, failure, phobia, conflict, set-back, crisis, mistake, etc.) you faced in order to show how.

 

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