Why You Want To Avoid This Essay Trap At All Costs

You have good grades. You have good activities, recommendations, and test scores.

You have all the right credentials to get into your dream college.

But guess what?

Thousands of other students have the same GPAs, SAT scores, and teachers fawning over how smart they are.

I’m not telling you this so you don’t feel special.

I’m telling you this to make sure your essays are as special as possible.

With your Common Application essay and your supplements, you have the chance to show admissions officers the value that only you can bring to their school.

Cliché essay topics and phrases must be avoided because you risk sounding like every other student.

Do not write about the time you got cut from soccer tryouts and worked hard to make the team the next year. Thousands of other students have the exact same story.  Do not write that you are a “hard-working person”—that will be clear from your transcript and your recommendations.

Admissions officers want you to show them, in detail, your drive, curiosity, and passion without using any of those words.

They want you to paint a picture of something that is important to you. Tell them something that they could not deduce from anything in your transcript, activities resume, or recommendations. This element of surprise will bring the best writing out of you and will be just as enjoyable to read.

The Best Essay I’ve Read

One of the best college essays I’ve helped edit was about singing in the shower. Why was it so compelling? They were able to describe singing in the shower with the same detail and emotion as someone would describe singing on stage at the Lincoln Center. It showed that they could bring their intellectual vibrancy to even the simplest activity.

Cliché topics are not limited to “hard work pays off” stories. For this year, I can guarantee that thousands of students will write about being isolated during the quarantine. They will talk about the quietness of their life, what it was like to be away from friends, and how they began a new bread-making hobby. Unless you truly have a unique, vulnerable, or creative moment to share about your experience with coronavirus, I suggest avoiding using the words “quarantine” and “coronavirus” because they will be so widely used this application season.

To ensure your essays are cliché free, I have a quick two-step process.

1.) Ask yourself—Is this a story only I can tell?

If you are writing about an experience that you know several friends could also write about, you have not thought of a story or topic personal enough to you.

2.) Show, Don’t Tell

This phrase should be written on a post-it note and stuck right above the computer you write your essays on. This is the number one rule that will make sure you are not using any clichés. That’s because when you go into detail and describe settings, emotions, and observations, you enter a world that is entirely your own. No one has your unique perspective and that is why all the best essays are written with this phrase in mind. 

The key to helping your junior get in and get money for college

Parents of juniors…I want college admissions to be a stress-free process for your teen. Don’t see how that’s possible? Let me share some intentional things you can do to support your teen’s success to help them (and you!) avoid stressing out. The key is to approach the process in a way that makes sense for your teen, beginning with ownership. 

Own the Process 

First off, having your junior own the process (being engaged, responsible and accountable) will take a lot of pressure off you as a parent. But it goes deeper than that. I know from the research, and from experience with my own children that when your teen takes ownership of the process, they:

  • are much more successful in the college admissions process and more likely to get into the top colleges on their ist
  • can be sure they are a good fit for the college, and as a result, 
  • end up getting scholarship money. 

 

The key takeaway is to be sure your teen is in charge so that they are owning the process

 

Now that we’ve established that, where can you and your teen start with finding money for college?

 

External Scholarship Opportunities 

Let’s talk about external scholarships, which are scholarships that are not from the colleges, but from external sources. Oftentimes families are unaware of the other resources that are out there. This year especially, you want to be intentional around external scholarships. Here are five in particular that you may not have considered. 

 

1. Scholarships from Companies

Many companies, including law firms, major restaurants and retail companies offer scholarships. One widely-known example is the Coca-Cola scholarship for seniors which is a very large scholarship. However, your junior can position themselves to compete for that scholarship going into senior year. Also look at some of the companies in your own community that offer scholarships, which you can often find on their websites.

 

2. Scholarships from Civic Organizations 

Another great resource is civic organizations and foundations. Sometimes they are need-based (which require you to provide proof of need) while others involve a contest, where you complete an application with an essay to qualify. Now is a good time to research the civic organizations in your community that offer scholarships.

 

3. Scholarships from Credit Unions 

Credit unions are wonderful community neighbors, and they often will have scholarships as well. Sometimes, there are additional offerings for members of that credit union. If you’re a member of a credit union, definitely check that out! I recommend that you look into these opportunities in junior year; some of the requirements are junior-year specific.  Another note regarding credit unions: if you know that there is a credit union that offers a scholarship and you’re not a member, now is the time to become a member. If you plan ahead your teen can position themselves for that particular award now. 

 

4. Scholarships from Your Employer 

There are a lot of employers that offer scholarships. I believe that NiSource, the energy company here in Columbus, offers scholarships. See if your employer offers scholarships as well. Again, junior year is the time to look into the criteria. 

 

5. National Merit Scholarship Program 

Most students take the PSAT in junior year and their score will determine whether they qualify for national merit. One thing to know regarding the PSAT, is that it is not really considered for college admission. However, when your junior takes the PSAT and scores in the 99th percentile, then they qualify for a national merit scholarship. Have your teen research the criteria for the National Merit scholarship. 

 

Who Can Apply for External Scholarships?

Although you have a junior, be aware that you can apply for an external scholarship beginning at age 13 (keep that in mind if you have younger children as well). If your child wins a scholarship, that money is held and then sent to the college when they enroll. I encourage families with younger teens to apply for scholarships. Not only does it develop their resilience, it also helps to instill that growth mindset that we want our students to have. Plus, they will be adding to their portfolio of writing samples as well.

What your junior can do in December to prepare for college

If your teen is a junior, you are probably already overwhelmed with a lot of information coming from your teen’s school, neighbors, friends who have kids and maybe even your workplace. With that information overload, it can be hard sometimes to prioritize and stay on top of things. I want to make sure that you don’t get left behind in this process. 

Here are some things that you can do right now in the month of December. 

Researching Colleges 

The first action item would be researching colleges in order to learn whether or not that college is a good fit for them. When they find ones that are a good fit, they will likely thrive in terms of their years in college and that’s what we want for them. 

I’ve mentioned before the five areas of fit which are: academic, social, financial, vocational and cultural fit (You can refer to my previous article on fit here ). 

Decide Which Test They will Take 

The second thing they can be doing in the month of December is deciding which test they’re going to focus on –  the SAT or the ACT. Some states have one particular test as a graduation requirement, for example in Ohio, it is the ACT. However, many students still take the SAT because that’s the test that they favor. Taking both tests is actually no longer required. 

When students are taking both just for the sake of taking both, not only does it waste money, but it wastes time as well. I recommend that students focus on the one that’s best for them, which could even be based on the schedule or availability. Whatever it is, just focus on one test because colleges will take either one, there’s no need to do both. 

After they decide which test to focus on, they need to decide how they’re going to prepare. The month of December is a great time for them to prep for the test they’ll be taking. I usually recommend at least 6 to 12 weeks of prep time. 

 

      Read more about preparing the for test

 

Read a book for pleasure during winter break

There is plenty of research to support why teens should continue to read (and why they don’t do it, as well). Becoming a real reader can improve your teen’s vocabulary, make them a better writer, help them get into college, and enlarge their breadth of understanding of the world around them.  Click here to learn more

But did you know that one of the most commonly used prompts for college admissions essays is “Tell about a book you read for pleasure and why it should be required”?

 

So how can you get your teen to read during their “downtime?”

 

One resource I highly recommend is  Real Ballers Read – a popular Book-stagram with podcast interviews and other literary fun for teens from near-peer mentors. This is a great place to help your teen find a book to read during the winter break.

These are the important action steps that your junior can take during the month of December – researching colleges, determining which test they’re going to focus on (and how they will prepare for the test), and reading a book for pleasure over winter break. Starting this process now, as opposed to waiting until the new year, will make sure that your teen is on track and not feeling behind and rushed as we get into the spring. 

 

For more help with navigating junior year, sign up to receive my FREE College Prep Toolkit. This resource includes my Junior Year Roadmap, so you and your teen will know what they should be doing each month. 

Preparing for the SAT or ACT

Your teen has taken the practice tests and knows which one best represents their abilities. Congratulations! Now comes the hard part…preparing for the test. Keep reading for my top tips for preparing for the SAT or ACT. 

 

Preparing for the Test 

 

Independent Study

There are a number of ways that students can prepare for either of these tests. Whether they’re taking the SAT or the ACT, they could get a test prep book from the library or from one of the testing agencies to study on their own. I’ve had a number of students who are more disciplined and study on their own. I would recommend that they spend a specific amount of time going through the book and doing the practice tests. They should be going through the different sections of the tests and even on occasion, maybe on the weekend, sit down and go through the entire test for the amount of time of the real test. This extra step can help ensure they are prepared. Again, If your teen is disciplined in that way, that’s a great approach. 

 

Online Programs 

Another way to prepare is using an online service. My son used an online program and that helped him stay on task. The online program provided the practice test and scoring as well so he could see how he was doing. There were also video modules that complemented the material and practice that he was doing. It worked out very well for him and helped him improve his score. There are a number of these different automated online programs available. 

 

Getting a Tutor 

The third approach, which could be a bit more expensive, is getting a tutor. For a number of my students hiring a tutor was the best approach. You can receive tutoring either individually or in a class setting. This is also a great way to ensure that your teen is being held accountable. 

One of the things I want to encourage you to do if you decide to go that route is to interview the tutor. Below you will find some questions that I prepared for interviewing tutors. When it comes to working with a teacher or tutor, some of that learning comes through being able to connect with them. By interviewing the tutor, you can ensure they are a good fit for your family. 

Before interviewing the tutor your teen should first ask themselves a couple of questions. The first is determining how they learn best: would having a one-on-one tutor or a tutor in a class setting allow them to learn best? They should also identify why they need a tutor. 

 

When interviewing the tutor possible questions to ask: 

  • How will you measure your student’s progress throughout their session together? 
  • What kind of homework will they do in between sessions? 

 

(This will allow your teen to plan their schedule and make sure that they have the right expectations around what they should be doing in between time because not only will they be preparing during sessions but also between their time together.) 

 

  • Can you provide a demonstration of a typical session? 

For example, if they have a difficult math homework problem from school can they share it with the tutor and then have the tutor demonstrate how they would explain solving that problem? That can be a way to ensure that the tutor’s teaching style aligns with your teen’s learning style.

 

  • What kind of training have you  had in terms of tutoring?

I know a lot of tutors do professional development. Many of them take the test themselves to make sure that they understand what their students are going through. 

 

Some other questions that parents should also consider would be their cancelation policy, how much they charge, their availability over the holiday break and also asking for references from other parents. By talking with other parents you can get a good sense of how that tutor works, learn about how they engaged their students, as well as their test score results. 

 

If a tutor says they usually help their students get a certain increase over their practice score, then that may give you some indication around their success. Of course it may vary with your own teen. I wouldn’t set the expectation of going from a 22 to 30, but at least getting a sense for how they’re going to engage with your teen. Also, check to see how they will follow through on checking in on the student’s progress between sessions. 

 

If you decide to use a practice book or an online course, then certainly it could be similar in regards to finding out about the best book or program for your teen by reading about past success stories. Any case studies or testimonials available online would be a great resource to check out. 

 

At the end of the day, it’s going to be a two-way street in terms of your teen participating and doing the work. You don’t want to make the investment if they’re not going to follow through on their side. However, if they do follow through they really can achieve those great results. 

 

Have you signed up to receive my FREE College-Prep Toolkit? It includes a Junior Year Roadmap to help you navigate junior year and to know what your teen should be doing each month to stay on track. 

Get ahead and stay ahead! Get my FREE Toolkit.

Get In and Get Money: 5 Tips for College-Bound Juniors

college-bound high school juniors

This article was originally published on Jan 14, 2018, and has been updated.

Junior year of high school marks a turning point in the college admissions process.

It’s a year filled with milestones.

Researching colleges, developing teacher relationships, visiting campuses…the list goes on. College-bound juniors have a lot on their plate.

And did I mention testing?

Yes—ACT or SAT testing takes up a big chunk of junior year for college-bound teens!

The academic workload in eleventh grade is usually kicked up a notch or two as well.

Juniors are starting to ask themselves questions like, “What’s next?” and “am I on the right track?”

Friends and family also start to ask: “Where do you want to go to college?”

Especially for a junior who is not so sure what to say about their college prospects, junior year can be a bit of a pressure cooker.

I put together these five tips for college-bound juniors who want to get into the college of their choice and get the money to do so at the same time.

5 Tips for College-Bound High School Juniors

These tips will help college-bound juniors (and their parents) make the most of the year as they prepare for college.

1. Take challenging courses.

Colleges want to see that students challenged themselves during high school.

Every student is different, so a challenging course to one junior may be easy to another.

At the same time, juniors should maintain balance. This means taking a mix of courses that allow you to be challenged by course content as well as those that come more naturally.

2.  Research colleges.

When I say “research” colleges, I mean a thorough, consistent gathering of information on colleges that could be a good fit.

During your research, you want to consider how your options would be a good academic fit, social/cultural fit, and financial fit for you.

When it comes to a college’s financial fit, knowing what costs to expect will help you know the steps you’ll need to take to secure the funds to attend.

(By the way, you won’t want to miss this post outlining case studies of how students earned big scholarships!)

Juniors can gather information from college websites, books, directories, and other resources. The goal is to learn about each college at a deeper level.

william and mary for premed3. Get to know teachers.

It’s very likely that your college applications will include teacher recommendations.

The 3 things that qualify a teacher to write a strong recommendation are:

  • The student knows the teacher.
  • The teacher knows the student.
  • The teacher can write well about the student.

If they don’t already have a teacher who fits all of these qualifications, juniors can develop positive relationships with teachers to “qualify” them as recommenders.

In fact, this is an important task for junior year!

Juniors should plan to meet with one or two teachers on a regular basis throughout the year. They may also check-in with teachers after graded assignments, during free periods, or at the beginning of each term.

4. Visit college campuses.

Spring break of junior year is a great time to visit college campuses.

Many other juniors around the country are visiting campuses in the spring as well. Juniors should be prepared by researching and scheduling campus visits well in advance.

Before your campus visit, be sure to review the college’s website and have questions prepared.

(Note to parents: Let your student schedule the visits, not you!)

On the day of the visit, remember to take notes and have an open mind and good attitude. From the moment you arrive on campus, you’re being interviewed!

5. Take the ACT or SAT.

College-bound teens should take either the ACT or SAT in junior year.

If the first test is taken in the winter, it allows time for a retake before summer.

The goal is to avoid taking any standardized test in the fall of senior year.

In my experience working with college-bound students, senior year is already so busy with course workloads, college deadlines, and application essays. Having to take standardized tests too is a big nuisance.

Besides that, retake scores usually go down.

Junior year may come with a lot of stress and unanswered questions. With consistent steps taken throughout the year, it can be pivotal on the path to college admissions success!

And there’s plenty of help available for students and parents.

The fact you’re reading this means your motivation and focus to help your teen get to the front of the line has already moved them a leap ahead of the pack!

All you need now is to create a winning plan to help your teen Get In and Get Money.

If you are a busy parent who wants to help your college-bound junior reach their full potential, don’t miss my “Get In and Get Money” Workshop!

Need a little more guidance?

For one-on-one support and other resources to help you or your child get into (or pay) for college click here.

If you’d like to learn more about getting into college and getting money for college, don’t miss these articles either:

How to Save Time When Seeking Money for College
College Essay How-to: Who is someone you admire?
How to Avoid Overpaying for College

What other tips for 11th grade success would you suggest? Please let me know in the comments below!

Should my teen visit a campus in the summer?

The campus visit – even in the summer – is the best way to learn if a college is the right fit. Summer campus visits can be worthwhile, but families must weigh the tradeoffs of visiting when there may be few students on campus. However, when I toured Williams College in the summer with my oldest son, there were so many students on the campus visit that we took separate tours with student guides. If there are few students on campus, prospective high school students can still have the opportunity to learn about what the college offers.

Campus visit options

Many colleges offer summer visit schedules and the planning should be done weeks in advance. Here are a few different campus visit options that may be available in the summer:

  1. Individual visit – includes an information session and campus tour.
  2. Open House – comprehensive visit which may include faculty/student panels, financial aid presentation for parents, dorm tours, and/or eating in the dining hall.
  3. Self-guided tour – the short description of this . . . “you’re on your own!”

How campus visit matters

While it may be more ideal to visit during the school year to see the campus in action, the summer may be the only time that parents are available to visit with their teen. A summer campus visit is still better than no visit at all. For colleges that track “demonstrated interest”, the campus visit is a clear indicator that the student is interested in attending. This is especially important if a student lives within a 4-5 hour drive of a campus.

Summer campus visits can be most important for high school juniors. As juniors are finalizing their college list, a summer campus visit can be considerably helpful for writing applications in the fall. Likewise, given how busy the fall of senior year will be, it’s usually not enough time to go on a campus visit, especially if a teen plays a sport or participates in marching band.

When not to visit in summer

For one of my junior students, however, I did recommend a visit during fall of senior year, rather than the summer. She’s a tennis player and will have a couple rigorous AP classes and an Honors course in her busy schedule. Here’s why I made that suggestion . . .

The college she would visit was a small campus in an even smaller town. I have personally visited that same college in the summer and there was not even a student guide available to give me a tour. The campus was extremely quiet and the nearby downtown area was quieter, even on a sunny afternoon.

There’s a strong likelihood that if she visits this college in the summer, it will be hard to picture herself there. That first impression may be hard to overcome and cause her to falsely decide to not apply.

It can be a tough call, for sure, when teens and their parents are already so busy. Traveling a distance to visit college campuses can also be expensive.

The investment for college will be far greater so it makes sense to get the list right the first time. When a student has a strong impression of a campus during the summer, it will still be valuable to get a feel for how spirited a campus may be during the academic year. That visit during the academic year can be done after the student has been admitted, which will be even more telling if that college is the right fit.

Where are you planning to visit this summer?

Should my teen study for the PSAT?

psat

Each fall, parents with 9th, 10th and 11th graders ask me about the PSAT and whether their teen should study for the PSAT. As with most things in college readiness, it depends.

Let’s start with a general description of the PSAT to make sure we’re all on the same page. It’s considered a preliminary SAT exam and students often take it to get an unofficial look at the SAT. “Unofficial” means that this test is “off the record” for college admissions purposes. It’s rare that students would submit these scores for consideration in college admissions.

PSAT for 9th graders
Most high schools do not offer the option for 9th graders to take the PSAT. Although I have seen it offered at several independent schools.

Typically, I do not recommend that students take the PSAT in 9th grade. It adds too much unnecessary pressure and anxiety. The 9th grade is such a transitional period that the year is better spent acclimating to the new school environment, making friends, and getting to know teachers.


PSAT for 10th graders
Taking the PSAT in 10th grade can be a good idea, if your high school offers that option. 10th graders who take the PSAT can get familiar with the format and determine their own level of comfort with the question types. The results would also closely project SAT scores.

In addition to the PSAT in sophomore year of high school, I would highly recommend that students also consider taking the pre-ACT. The pre-ACT is an unofficial preview of the ACT. Again, taking the pre-ACT would be an opportunity for sophomores to get familiar the ACT format and determine their level of comfort with the question types.

The results of the PSAT and pre-ACT can then be compared, using an SAT-ACT comparison tool to determine if a student should take the SAT or ACT in junior year. It’s a waste of time and money to take both tests, so I highly recommend that students stick with one test . . . either the SAT or ACT!

Sophomore year is an important year for students to discover their interests and further their academic preparation. Spending time to study for the PSAT or pre-ACT is not a good use of their time. Certainly, students may look at practice questions, if they like, but I would not suggest prioritizing PSAT and/or pre-ACT test prep over homework assignments and reading for pleasure.

PSAT for 11th graders
The majority of high schools in the US require that high school juniors take the PSAT. The PSAT is used in junior year as the qualifying exam for National Merit Scholarships. Even when students take the PSAT in junior year, they must still take the SAT or ACT to meet college admissions requirements.

I have recommended that my students study for the PSAT in only a few cases. When I recommended that my students study in junior year, they met these criteria:

1. Had taken the PSAT in sophomore year
2. Had scored in the 99%ile on the PSAT in sophomore year (Each state has their own National Merit Scholarship baseline so be sure to look it up for your state.)

Those students were in striking distance of qualifying for National Merit Scholarship so it made sense for them to study for the PSAT in advance. Their study plan often included completion of two or more practice tests before the test date and thorough reviews of reading, writing, and math.

Rule of thumb: Test prep should never take precedence over maintaining a strong transcript whether a student is 9th, 10th or 11th grader.

Please let me know your thoughts and/or comments on this topic.

Oberlin: Funky intellectual community with lots of music, art and co-ops

Oberlin has a distinct history of challenging intellectual and social conventions. It was the first to adopt a policy to admit students of color and the first to educate women in an undergraduate program. This history shapes the diverse student experience today. Individuality is valued at Oberlin, which fosters strong bonds among an eclectic community of bright and talented students from around the world. Interestingly enough, much of the domestic student body hails from New York and California.oberlin music

Oberlin is an intellectual community where students explore ideas because they are inspired to learn, not for the sake of grades. Since 1920, more Oberlin graduates have earned Ph.D.s than have graduates of any other predominately undergraduate institution. Wow!

Acceptance: 33%

Freshmen from out of state: 95%

Most popular majors: politics, biology, music

Housing: All freshmen live on campus. Only seniors can live off-campus. The varied housing options include co-ops, several of which focused on foreign languages. For $5, students can rent up to two original works of art to decorate their room (what a deal!). Every dorm has a piano.

4-year Graduation rate: 73%

Academics: Oberlin has been a leader among liberal arts colleges that promote their science offerings, with biology and chemistry being two of their strongest departments. Undergraduates can also major in interdisciplinary programs like neuroscience and biopsychology.

There is no core curriculum but students must take classes humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Oberlin offers a winter term, which allows independent study in January. Undergrads must complete 3 winter terms to graduate.  75% study abroad and 65% engage in research with faculty mentors.

A nice perk to having a conservatory on campus is that private lessons are free when you take a music class for credit.

Social: Music is big on Oberlin’s campus. My tour guide boasted that there are 2-3 music events held on campus every day. Some of the most popular events feature music performances, such as orchestra concerts, jazz ensemble concerts, opera and theater productions, Friday Night Organ Pump concerts, and Hip Hop Conference. Student radio is the second largest organization. Students actively participate in 200 student groups and 70% engage in service projects.

Oberlin College & Conservatory

Financial: Oberlin offers merit aid and need-based financial aid, with 100% of need fully met.  Although the tuition and fees are $67,000, the average financial aid package is $37K. 83% of students receive scholarships. Oberlin offers both need-based and merit aid. Oberlin meets 100% of need.

What do you think about Oberlin? What about this college is a good fit for you? Please post your comments below.