Writing a Killer Application Essay

Picture this: it’s late at night, and an admissions officer is at home, still working. In front of her are two stacks of paper. The one to her left, the shorter stack, contains application essays she’s already read. The one to her right has 700 more. That’s right: 700.

How can you not only stand out from the crowd, but help her stay awake? Start with an introductory hook. The only real trick with a hook is that you need to compose the rest of the essay before you write it. Once you’ve got the body in good shape, you can think about how to draw your reader into your essay slowly, without giving her a roadmap of where you’re headed (don’t even think about writing something like “In this essay I will…).

These techniques deliver by grabbing attention with the first sentence:

  • get emotional: your reader will relate to your subject if you engage their emotions and cause them to make a connection with you and your writing. Think about beginning with the way you felt about something, rather than first describing or otherwise revealing that something.
  • be mysterious or intriguing: your introduction needs to relate to the rest of your essay, but can be a small detail that makes the admissions officer wonder what you’re up to. Writing about how your music teacher has influenced you? You might begin by describing him playing his cello in a few detailed sentences. Don’t mention that he is your teacher, or that he has helped shaped your love of music—yet. The reader will wonder who the “mystery man” is, and want to read on to find out.
  • give an anecdote: a very short “slice of life” story that doesn’t clue the reader in to where you are headed can be a great hook. Write about the last seconds of a basketball game, checking out your last customer of the day, your brilliant but disorganized teacher’s lecture on Emerson.
  • ask a question: “When have you ever heard of a basketball coach reading poetry to her team?” “Why would I want to give up my poolside summer as a lifeguard to work in a rundown, un-air-conditioned school?” Take your subject, and first ask yourself what is unusual or in need of an explanation. Turn it into a question that doesn’t have an obvious answer.
  • cite an unusual fact: telling your reader something he or she doesn’t know, and wouldn’t guess, can compel her to read on. If you’re writing about a travel experience, hunt down some statistics that might seem startling. “The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that during the month I was traveling, over 255,000 pieces of luggage were lost.” Did your church youth group volunteer with migrant farm workers picking oranges? A few minutes of research can help you begin your essay, “Florida’s Valencia orange forecast for April was 86 million boxes.”



Taking the PSAT Soon? A 20 Minute Prep Idea

Thousands of students across the country will take the PSAT in the next couple of weeks, and most of them will take it “cold.” That means they have no prior exposure to the test. Big mistake.

The PSAT, like the SAT, is tricky. It has question types students have never seen before (what teacher asks you to identify a grammar error and gives you “no error” as an option, or assigns math problems with more than one right answer?), and the directions can be confusing. The best way to prepare quickly is to get familiar with each of the four sections by going over the directions and making sure you understand them. Knowing them ahead of time can help ease anxiety, since at the very least you know what you’ll be facing, and it saves time. You want to begin reading, doing math problems, and answering questions as soon as a section begins–skipping the directions can save you up to five minutes overall.

Check out the PSAT section on college board.org and read the directions and overview of the Reading, Writing, Math with Calculator, and Math without Calculator tests. Bonus points for doing some practice problems!

Ten Worst Reasons to Choose a College

Deciding where to apply isn’t easy. There’s a lot of money spent on marketing by schools and plenty of misinformation shared by students and parents. You can cut through some of that by understanding how NOT to pick a school:

1. The website and/or brochure look great. ALL college websites and brochures look great. Even if the school is in a slum, the photographer will shoot the tiny patch of grass at an angle to make it look like an urban oasis.  The students are always happy, studious, and good looking, and the weather is perfect. Remember that these are marketing tools—they might have information you need, but they’re also about selling an image.

2. Prestige. There’s nothing wrong with going to a highly selective school; you’ll have access to a great education and alumni support that can help you land a job. But choosing a school solely for its prestigious reputation is shallow. You’re going to be there for four years—make sure the attraction is more than skin deep.

3. Your friends are going there. Just because they’re your friends doesn’t mean you share the same goals, study habits, or other preferences. Going to college is the first real step to becoming independent, and choosing a school should be about thinking for yourself.

4. It’s cheap. Once it’s time to decide which college you’ll attend, finances are of course a major consideration. But we’re talking about applying: if there is a school or schools you’d like to go to but that seem out of reach financially, apply anyway (you might even be able to get the fee reduced or apply online free). Studies show that most students don’t pay the “sticker price;” schools routinely offer aid packages that put them within reach. Cost alone is not a good reason to apply to a college.

5. The online matching program told you it was a good school for you. Those free programs can help you learn about schools you might not have considered and give you ideas about narrowing down your choices. But they’re not foolproof and they’re highly impersonal (no matter how much they try to appear otherwise). Don’t give their “advice” more weight than it deserves.

6. You know you’ll get in. Everyone needs a “safety” school, but you should give as much thought about choosing that school or schools as you do with your “reach” schools. There are colleges out there that routinely accept the majority of their student body with grades and test scores below yours that you’d actually like to attend. 

7. They offer the major you’re interested in. If they’re also in a great location, are the size you’re looking for, and match your other criteria, apply. If not, an academic program alone (unless it’s so unique that you really don’t have another choice) is a bad reason. Can you spell t-r-a-n-s-f-e-r?

8. Your mother/grandfather/uncle went there. Again, does it match your criteria? If not, being a legacy is not as important as attending a college that’s a great fit for you.

9. It’s always on the list of top-ten party schools. And you’re going to college why? Everyone needs to unwind, but if partying takes precedence over education now, before you’re even there, it might be a wise idea to consider taking a year off. There are some great “gap year” programs to help you get some experience and identify what you’d like to study.

10. It’s the only school you’ve seen and you liked it. After seeing five more schools, you might still like it. Or you might discover that it only looked good when you had nothing to compare it to. Going to college takes a considerable amount of time and money. Get out there and visit a few more.

Why Your Tried-and-True Test Taking Strategies Probably Won’t work on the SAT (and how to fix them)

You’re about to take the PSAT or the SAT for the first time. Not a big deal, you’re thinking. It’s just a test. It might be longer than other tests I’ve taken, but I’m a pretty good test taker, so why should this be any different?

The problem with that thinking is the SAT is very different from other tests. What helps you succeed in the classroom most likely will not help you on this test. Of course there’s a small percentage students with high-level critical thinking skills that just “get” the SAT, and can get a high score their first time around, but that is the exception.

Here’s what we mean:

Strategy # 1: read the directions.

It’s a no-brainer, right? As soon as you open the test and see the first section, which will be Reading, you begin by reading the directions, which might take you up to a minute. That’s a minute you could have spent reading and answering questions. You don’t get any points for reading the directions, which you can get familiar with on the College Board or Khan Academy website. Over the course of the test, this strategy can save you up to ten minutes—minutes you can use to answer questions and score points.

Strategy # 2: solve math problems the way your math teacher would want you to solve them.

Have you every taken a math test and not had to show your work? Your teachers want to know that you’ve learned the material they just taught you, so they want to see that you can use whatever method that might be. On the SAT, methods aren’t important. Whatever is most comfortable for you, whether that’s writing an equation, drawing a picture, using your graphing calculator, or some other method, it doesn’t matter. You just need to come up with the right answer.

Strategy #3. it’s multiple choice, so just look for the right answer.

This one sounds even more simple than the first two. That is, until you find out that vocabulary questions in the Reading and Writing sections involve common words with multiple meanings—and all four answer choices are correct definitions. Only one however is correct in the context of the passage. Many of the writing questions give you the option of “no change,” meaning about 25 percent of the time, you’re looking for an answer to something that’s already correct.

Approaching the SAT like it’s a regular classroom test can put you at a disadvantage and have huge consequences for your score. Whether you work your way through all of the material on the College Board and Khan Academy websites, enroll in an SAT prep course, or take our SAT Bootcamp (we offering one for the first time this summer! Read more here), becoming familiar with the test and learning how to take it is a much better approach.



Using Social Media to Improve Admissions Odds


The terms “College Admissions” and “Social Media” are typically linked for one threatening reason: be careful what you post, because colleges may be watching you. But if colleges are watching you, doesn’t that represent an opportunity? Instead of worrying about the negative, why not create content, and engage across social media, that could actually improve your acceptance chances?

That was the idea presented in a recent webinar sponsored by the California Learning Strategies Center. Rose Hayden-Smith of the University of California, who consults with parents about using social media to help their children in the application process, presented Using Social Media to Improve Admissions Odds, Hayden-Smith provides a unique take on positive brand building and demonstrated interest through social media. She noted that admissions officers, recruiters, colleges, and academic departments within schools can be found on Twitter and Facebook—not trolling for negative information on applicants, but as users who provide information and reach out to audiences including applicants. Why not, she suggested, follow them, like their pages, and engage with them? This kind of interaction could be used to enhance your application as you share (in a respectful, dignified manner) videos of a performance, a picture of yourself wearing the school sweatshirt, or a link your website. The possibilities are limitless, and it’s a way to use your time on social media to your advantage.

But, she warned, you’ve got to keep it positive. Brand building, whether through your Facebook posts, tweets, and/or a WordPress site, involves presenting a consistent, accurate story about who you are, what you’re doing, and where your interests lie.  Instead of simply listing community service projects on your application, your Facebook page could bring that work to life by including pictures of your activities, feedback from those you’ve worked with, and even newspaper clippings or other media mentions. This kind of branding, said Hayden-Smith, teaches students effective social skills; articulates values, expertise, talents, and goals; and keeps them accountable. It can also be useful during and after college to secure internship and employment opportunities.  

To learn more, she suggests reading The Pew Research Center’s report on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy; the NACAC’s paper Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media is Changing College Admission; and “When Colleges Woo Students Through Social Media: Less Viewbooks, More Facebook,” an article in Time magazine. You can also listen to the webinar here.

Retake the SAT in October for Free

Judging by how buried this information is on the College Board’s website, we’re guessing that many students who took the June 6 SAT (the one with the printing error that caused two sections to be left unscored) aren’t aware that the fee has been waived for a retake in October.

Here’s the official wording:

Q: Is there an opportunity for students to take the test again?

We remain confident in the reliability of scores from the June 6 administration of the SAT and don’t want to cause undue anxiety for students by making them believe they need to sit for the test again. However, we have waived the fee for the October SAT administration for students who let us know that their testing experience was negatively affected by the printing error and we will continue to do so, through the September 3 registration deadline for the October administration.”

[you can read the entire announcement about the June test here]

This process may take some time, so if you are even contemplating a retake, contact the College Board this week and get your registration started.

Practice alone is not prep


where and when to find VT sat bootcamp classes

Imagine you’re a violinist, or a soccer player. You haven’t played with an orchestra, nor have you played on a team in an actual game. But you’re practicing—a lot.
How far will it get you? As with music, sports, and the SAT, not very. The SAT is a tricky test, with many different kinds of traps laid by its writers. Practice alone, without an understanding of how to evaluate your performance, won’t help you much. It’s vitally important to understand, for example: which types of questions continually trip you up? What content could you review that would improve your odds of answering more questions correctly? Are you guessing too much, or too little? Should you skip certain questions and focus more on those you have a better chance of gaining points with?
It’s these types of questions that will steer you toward a personalized approach that can not only reduce anxiety, but help you zero in on answering the greatest number of questions correctly, with “smart guessing” adding to your score. Practice alone, as with music and sports, can ingrain bad habits and give you no useable feedback on how to improve.
SAT Bootcamp is the antidote. We work with students to help them understand past performance, identify potential weak spots in content knowledge, and provide a path forward for meaningful, productive practice. It’s worked for hundreds of students over the past eight years, and we are confident it will help many more in the future.
Next Bootcamp: This Saturday, January 31. Essex High School. Register here: https://www.essexvermont.org/parks/wbwsc/webtrac.wsc/wbsearch.html?wbsi=f56000e5-43d5-47b7-e411-b1a5e41bf427\


Tomorrow’s SAT: How to prepare tonight

If you’re planning to take the SAT tomorrow, a little advance preparation today will help you stay calm tomorrow morning. Here’s what to do:

  • eat a good dinner tonight, and plan a healthy breakfast for tomorrow
  • purchase and pack nutritious snacks and a drink in a bag or backpack
  • get at least two number 2 pencils with erasers (and remember that dull pencils fill in ovals faster on your answer sheet!)
  • print your admission ticket from www.collegeboard.com and pack it with your photo ID
  • check your calculator batteries, replace if they’re low, and pack your calculator
  • pack a watch to keep track of each section (proctors are supposed to give you five minute warnings, but they don’t always do it)
  • make plans to do something fun after the test, and have a picture, video, or song that makes you happy ready for viewing/listening to just before you enter the testing center (research at Harvard University shows this step will give you a “positivity boost” that can improve focus and concentration)
  • remember to turn your phone off before entering the testing center and store it in your backpack–your scores will be cancelled if it goes off or if you are caught looking at it. Better yet, leave it at home.
  • get a good night’s sleep and stop studying/practicing

Why You Should Ignore the US News & World Report College Rankings





I’ve written before about the US News & World Report College Rankings (you can read “Useful tool or misleading hype” here),    but a recent Washington Post article explains the factors that determine which schools rise to the top of the list, noting, “If you still think the rankings mean much of anything after reading the methodology (which is the same as last year’s), then let’s talk about this bridge I have for sale …..”

Here’s just one of the more surprising findings:

22.5% of the ranking is based on academic reputation. That makes sense, until you discover that the reputation is determined by “opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence. The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – to account for intangibles at peer institutions such as faculty dedication to teaching.” US News asks competitors to assess each other, on “intangibles” that they have no knowledge of? It’s hard to imagine any other industry using this methodology–can you imagine the Yankees giving high marks to the Red Sox?

The National Association of College Admissions Counselors already weighed in on the rankings (hint: most college counselors don’t think much of them), and they’ve received some scathing media coverage, but they persist. Maybe the Washington Post will help debunk this worthless list once and for all.




Advanced Admissions: What seniors can do now to get in next April

Most seniors think their job is to find the schools they want to apply to over the next month or two. The more ambitious ones might also be writing application essays. And they’re right. But what most aren’t doing is something of a secret in admissions counseling. The term “demonstrated interest” gets tossed around in articles on admissions trends, but there is very little concrete advice on what it is and how to do it.

If you’re not familiar with demonstrated interest, it describes a student’s efforts to show that a school is at the top of his or her list. Admissions officers gauge interest in an attempt to predict who will attend if admitted.

I asked two leading college counselors, Marilyn Emerson and Howard Verman , for their advice on how best to demonstrate interest. Marilyn prefaced her list with an important distinction: the applicant, rather than a parent, must be the one showing the interest. Phone calls and emails from parents can actually hurt your chances for admission at some selective schools.

Here are their ideas:
• Visit the college if possible. It shows you’ve invested the time to check out the campus. While there, take the tour, arrange to sit in on a class, and talk with students. If you’re interested in majoring in a specific department, arrange to meet with a professor or students pursuing the major and ask questions.
• Request an on-campus interview if the college offers one, or connect with an alumnus in your area. Prepare for the interview by learning about the school and thinking about what you want the interviewer to know about you. This shows initiative, even if the interview never takes place.
• If you cannot get to the school, arrange to visit with the college admissions staff at a local or national college fair. You can check out national college fairs at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling website, www .nacacnet.org.
• Identify the Regional Admissions Officer at each college on your list. This is the person responsible for applications from your part of the country. Get to know this person through both email and phone conversations. Ask this person to help you decide if the school is a good fit.
• Let the college know if it is your first choice or a top choice.
• Attend a prospective student day.
• Participate in online chats through the admissions department.
• Email well thought-out questions and spend time on the college’s website on a regular basis. Colleges keep track of how often you contact them and visit the site.
• Respond to recruiting emails or correspondence.
• Attend a college fair or a college reception.
• Meet with the admissions officer who visits your high school or local area.
• Develop a relationship with someone at the college or university.
• Answer the “why you want to attend” question on your application as thoughtfully and thoroughly as possible.
• Once you’ve sent in your application, check back with the admissions office to make sure they have everything they need and that your application is complete.

Marilyn offers a final word of caution: “college admissions officers are usually very skilled at reading students, so do not think of this process as a game and try to fake your interest.”

Howard Verman is a senior associate with Strategies For College, Inc., a Vermont corporation specializing in college selection, admissions, and financial aid counseling with offices in Shelburne, VT, Montpelier, VT, West Lebanon, NH, and Canton, MA. He can be contacted at (802) 985-8700 or through www.strategiesforcollege.com.
Marilyn Emerson is the President of College Planning Services, Inc. She specializes in college and graduate admission counseling. She has offices in Chappaqua and New York City and can be reached at mgse@collplan.com.

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