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Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (without Helping Too Much)


« June 2012 | Main | August 2012 »

July 31, 2012

Five rules for college application "division of labor"

I often see parents taking on a lot more of their kid's college application responsibilities than they should be.  To maintain the right balance, here are five rules for college application "division of labor":

1. Students should drive the process.  Parents can provide organizational support, encouragement, and a little cheerleading from the sidelines, but the student who will be attending college is the one who needs to do the work to get there. 

2. All contact with colleges should be initiated by the student, not the parent (unless the question is a financial one).

3. Students should fill out their own applications and write their own essays.  Don’t mix helpful proofreading/editing with ghost authoring.

4. While not mandatory, it’s common and accepted for parents to fill out financial aid forms since Mom and Dad are often the ones paying the bill.  Scholarship applications, however, are the student’s job.

5. Both parents and students should celebrate every offer of admission, move quickly past the sting of rejection, and enjoy the process in their respective roles together.

July 30, 2012

Remember your own advice

To parents who are:

Talking excessively about getting your kids into “good colleges”
Paying for the expensive test preparation
Filling out your student’s applications or writing his essays
Turning the process into a status competition
Communicating with colleges for your student
Mixing up your pronouns and saying things like, “We are applying to…”
Picking activities for your student
Arguing with teachers who don’t give your student an “A”
Making everything about college admissions
Acting like an acceptance from a prestigious school is the only acceptable outcome

Remember your own advice you’ve likely given to your kids: Just because your friends do it doesn’t mean that you should, too.

July 29, 2012

You get over “No”

I’ve heard people who went to college say that it changed their life, that they couldn’t imagine going someplace else, and they never would be where they are today had they not attended their alma mater.

But I’ve never heard someone look back and say that being rejected from a dream school ruined their life.  Rejection happens, but people get over it and make college memories someplace else.

Keep that in mind if you find yourself worrying about whether or not your dream school will say yes.

July 28, 2012

Go private

I’ve heard from a few college applicants recently who are reluctant or flat-out unwilling to make their Twitter and/or Facebook profiles private. They resent the notion that an admissions officer would take the time to do a Google search and see what the Internet turns up.

A student can debate all he wants as to whether an admissions officer should take the time to look at your online postings. But it happens, and you have to face that fact.  It also happens when you apply for a job and any time you do anything remotely resembling going on a date.  People seek out information about others online. When they find something, you don’t have control over how they react. You can only control what they find (and you’re able to control less and less of that every day).

If your Twitter or Facebook pages have content that you’d be just fine with your parents or your high school principal seeing, knock yourself out and go public. Otherwise, play it safe and go private. You’re almost certainly not Tweeting anything worth jeopardizing your chances of getting into college.

July 27, 2012

Practical tips on paying for college

Every time I visit finaid.org, I find something interesting and useful. Here’s today’s discovery: Financial Aid Wisdom: Practical Tips about Paying for College. It summarizes the most important things families need to know about saving for college, applying for financial aid and scholarships, and evaluating awards.

July 26, 2012

Think smaller slices

When faced with college essay prompts, a lot of students mistakenly think big.  Big life lessons learned.  Big impacts.  Big epiphanies. That’s fine if you’ve experienced something transformative, but your college essays don’t necessarily have to be about something dramatic. 

We teach our Collegewise students that sharing a small slice of your life in an essay can often help the reader get to know something about you just as well as--if not better than--a story in which you try to inject something big. 

One student we worked with wrote about how he designed a website for his club soccer team, complete with press clippings, player bios, and a schedule of upcoming games.

A student who, when she was young, lost her mother wrote about cooking dinner for herself and her father every night.  She called the essay, “Table for Two.”

A summer camp counselor wrote about making playlists on his iPod that the kids would love, and how by the end of the summer, he was sure his head would explode if he heard "Who Let the Dogs Out?" one more time.

One boy began his essay, “I’ve got a harmonica in my pocket right now,” and described how he’d taught himself to play it.  In his words, he was "by no means a harmonica virtuoso," but he could “play a mean 'Oh Susanna.'”

And a student transplanted from New York City to Southern California wrote about his diehard love for the Yankees, an interest he shared with his dad.

I’m not suggesting you should write about something totally insignificant (nobody cares how much you like to dunk Oreos in milk).  Effective stories about the small slices of life share something that matters to you, that you’re proud of, or that the people who know you best would read and say, “That’s so you.”  

July 25, 2012

Can you name that school?

Michigan State, Dartmouth, Pacific Lutheran, Drew, and UT Austin are five very different colleges.  But it would be hard to tell the differences from the descriptions I pulled from their websites below.  The only editing I did was to delete anything that mentioned the school's name or state.  Can you tell which is which?

1. But we’re more than just a collection of schools—we’re a community like no other. Our alumni, faculty, students, and staff share a passion for this institution that is unparalleled. At [ ], people forge close connections. Intense involvement in athletics, service, and other activities fosters collaboration and camaraderie. Our students enjoy personal contact with faculty both in and out of the classroom. Undergraduates have the opportunity to conduct original research and work one-on-one with faculty who are at the leading edge of their fields. This unique level of personal interaction and the opportunity to create new knowledge is a signature of our graduate and professional programs as well.  With two-thirds of [ ] students taking part in our 60 foreign study and exchange programs, the world is our campus. Our intimate setting encourages focus.

2. The heart of a [ ] education is the free exchange of ideas that comes from close mentoring relationships with faculty and deep intellectual engagement with peers.  With 50 areas of study and three pre-professional programs, [ ]'s rich and varied liberal arts curriculum encourages exploration and invites students to take learning out of the classroom. And the curriculum at [ ] is carefully constructed to shape certain competencies—in writing, quantitative reasoning, information literacy and foreign language—essential for success in the contemporary world.

3. Ours is a diverse learning community, with students from every state and more than 100 countries. We are a world-class research university. Last year our faculty and their research teams attracted more federal research grants than any American university without a medical school, except MIT. We were one of the top five universities in the number of U.S. patents awarded to our researchers in 2009. 

4. [ ] is dedicated to developing ethical, educated, thinking leaders by challenging students to identify and ask questions of meaning and value in their own lives.  [ ] offers a full range of liberal arts academic programs – such as psychology, history and the natural sciences – anchored by a college of arts and sciences. The university also provides students the opportunity for professional study in business, communication and arts, education, nursing, social work, and physical education. Each of these programs maintains a strong liberal arts emphasis at its core. Master’s degrees are offered in business, education, marriage and family therapy, nursing, and writing.

5. Together, we tackle some of the world’s toughest problems to find solutions that make life better—from alternative energy to better food safety to breakthrough medical and environmental applications achieved through rare isotope research.  We teach. We explore and we discover. We collaborate and lead. We innovate, inspire, and empower. We achieve our potential and create circumstances that help our students and others achieve theirs.  Home to nationally ranked and recognized academic, residential college, and service-learning programs, we’re a diverse community of dedicated students and scholars, athletes and artists, scientists and leaders.

Why is it so hard to differentiate between them?  Is it because colleges could do a better job of describing who they are, what they do, and what's unique about them?  Or is it because there are hundreds of great colleges from which to choose, any one of which will give you four years of learning, growth, and self-discovery?

The answer: A little of both.

The schools:

  1. Dartmouth
  2. Drew
  3. UT Austin
  4. Pacific Lutheran
  5. Michigan State

July 24, 2012

Rethinking system messages

When we opened our little online store last year, it was important to me that we get all of the text right, from the storefront welcome to the descriptions of each product.  I wanted it to sound like us, not unlike the way we tell our students to write their college essays to sound like them.

What I forgot to do was pay attention to the text that’s not part of the store, but part of the process.  What does it say on each page of the checkout screen?  What does the invoice say?  What’s the message when there’s an error?  It was clear that we’d come up short in most of those instances.  In fact, most were just the default text that our web service uses.  It didn’t sound like us at all, and worse, it wasn’t very helpful for the user.

For example, when a customer bought something, this is the next screen we gave them:

ThankYouForYourPurchase


I would never say the exact words, “Thank you for your purchase.”  So why make that our thank-you language?  Why are we telling them to go to their email to find the download link if it’s right there on the screen?  And why do they have to wait 24 hours to email us if they don’t get a confirmation? 

So I re-did the page to say this:

Thank you redesign!

Now it actually gives them some helpful information.  It also sounds like a real person wrote it.  And it makes it clear what to do if they have any problems.

Here’s an example of the screen someone would see if they had clicked a bad link or mistyped a url for our site:

URLError

It's not very helpful.  It's not very pleasing to the eye.  And tell me why "Web Page" is capitalized?

Here’s the re-worded version:

URLErrorRevised


Here’s the screen they saw if there was a problem logging into their account:

SecureAccess


It’s never good to flash the word “Denied” when helping kids get into college.  It tells them to contact us, but doesn’t tell them how to do it.  And the capitalization is at best questionable. 

Here’s the re-designed screen:

SecureZoneFix

I’ve got a lot of other screens/messages to improve.  But hopefully soon, all of our system messages will be helpful when a customer needs help, they won’t frustrate people, and they'll sound like us.  

July 23, 2012

Three steps to getting money to help pay for college

The Choice blog just featured an interactive list of more than 600 colleges and universities that award merit aid. Published by Education Life, the higher education quarterly of The New York Times, the list includes the sticker price of the institution’s tuition and fees, the percentage of freshmen who receive merit aid, and the average amount of money that they receive.  Unlike need-based aid, merit aid has nothing to do with how much a family can (or cannot) afford to pay for college.

If you want to improve your chances of getting the money you need to help you attend college:

1. Apply for need-based aid (don’t assume you won’t qualify).

2. Apply to colleges where you have a good chance of admission.

3. Choose schools that award merit-based aid.

July 22, 2012

The greatness test

Jim Collins is a former Stanford Business School professor and the author of four best-selling books about great companies.  From an interview in Inc magazine, here’s his take on what makes a company great:

NewQuotation

To be great, a company also has to make a distinctive impact. I define that by a test: If your company disappeared, would it leave a gaping hole that could not easily be filled by any other enterprise on the planet?  Now, that doesn't mean the company has to be big. A restaurant could have such great relationships with customers—such a great community presence and such great food—that, if it went away, people would feel a gaping hole, and no one could easily come in and fill it."

That’s actually a good test for all of us, whether or not we own a business.  If you stopped showing up to play baseball or write for the school newspaper, to counsel kids or teach English, to run PTA meetings or chair the parent fundraising committee, would you leave a gaping hole that would be hard to replace?

I tell a story at Collegewise about one of our students who admitted he was the worst water polo player on his high school team.  But he loved the game and brought so much energy and spirit to practice with him every day that he won the coach’s award two years in a row (even though he’d played less than five minutes of actual game time).  He wrote his college essay about water polo and got into every college he applied to.  Like the great companies, he would have been missed if he had stopped showing up, and he could not have been easily replaced.

You don’t necessarily need the highest GPA, best curveball, most clients, etc. to be great.  You just need to make yourself hard to replace.