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August 28, 2014

How NOT to Write a College Essay

Here are some of the most common mistakes students make, and why you should avoid them:

Repeat info covered in another part of the application.
Students often repeat themselves in the college essay "just to be safe." However, admissions officers have already read, or will read, the rest of your application. Reading the same thing twice is boring. Trust them to do their job and read the application as thoroughly as necessary. Give them some insight into your motivations and how they indicate your abilities. If you mentioned something briefly on the application, you can go into it in more detail in the essay.

Don't do this:
"In freshman year I was in Key Club. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about helping others. I also joined the lacrosse team, which took up a lot of time. However, I still found time to volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend. All of this demonstrates that I am responsible and capable."

Whining about circumstances instead of explaining why/how you overcame them.
Nobody likes a sob story, no matter how true or heartbreaking it is. Don't look for pity. Instead, show admissions committees how you surpassed difficulties to achieve a high GPA, leadership position, or some other accomplishment. Impress them with your determination.

Don't do this:
"Because my parents had to get rid of the babysitter after we had money issues, I had to quit the soccer team to watch my little sister. It was a real shame to have to leave my teammates and give up the chance of being state champions, but family comes first, so I didn't mind making the sacrifice."

Talk about how you want to go to a particular college because it has a great reputation or you want to make money.

Many students want to go to a top school and make money. Why does this make you special and different? Self-promotion is a given. Instead, distinguish yourself through your desire to intensively study the subjects that interest you or to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas.

Don't this this:
"University X is well-renowned, and many famous people like _____, ____, and ____ graduated from there. With a degree from University X, I'll be sure to be a success in life and make my friends and family proud."

Misrepresent your achievements and goals in the essay.
If you graduated in the middle of your class and have no extracurriculars/recommendations to back up the following...

Don't do this:
"I was one of the top students in my school and hope to reduce world hunger or find a cure for cancer."

The following need no example:

Use "cute" techniques to stand out.
Covering your essay in glitter and perfume, enclosing a link to a YouTube video of yourself performing goofy antics, or writing the entire essay in Pig Latin.

Say you want to go to College X in College Y's application.
It'd be a shame to mix up the two essays and get into neither one as a result. Double check.

Include careless grammatical errors, overly wordy phrases, and clichés.
You already know the stakes are high when it comes to college admissions. Show admissions officers that you care enough about the process to write an amazing college essay.

August 22, 2014

How to Become President of a High School Club by 12th Grade

Even if classwork and standardized tests aren't your cup of tea, there's still hope. Extracurriculars are the area where people skills wins out over book smarts. However, if everything you do in extracurriculars happens behind the scenes, it's hard to show admissions officers YOU were the mover and shaker. This week's post gives you a road map to help you get that prized leadership position.

Let's pretend you're an admissions officer. It's Friday afternoon, and you've been sitting in a cramped room all day reviewing applications. You're about to leave when your fellow admissions officer calls you over to choose between two applicants with identical GPAs and SAT scores. Their extracurricular activities lists are the following:

Applicant #1 (Procrastinating Paul):

9th Grade: Member of Model Congress

10th Grade: Member of Model Congress

11th Grade: Member of Model Congress, Member of Chamber Orchestra (2nd semester), Member of Varsity Track Team (2nd semester)

12th Grade: Member of Model Congress, Member of Chamber Orchestra, Member of Varsity Track Team



Applicant #2 (Ambitious Annie):

9th Grade: Freshman Representative of Model Congress, Member of Math Club, Treasurer of Amnesty International chapter (2nd Semester), Member of JV Track Team

10th Grade: Treasurer of Model Congress, Member of Math Club, Member of Amnesty International Chapter, Captain of JV Track team

11th Grade: Vice President of Model Congress, Member of Varsity Track team

12th Grade: President of Model Congress, Co-Captain of Varsity Track team


Who will bring more to a college - a leader or a follower? Who sounds more impressive?

You'll notice Procrastinating Paul was only involved in one activity in 9th and 10th grade. Colleges know that to be a member of a club, all you have to do is join an email list and attend a couple of meetings. It wasn't until the middle of 11th grade that he actually started doing something. It looks like Paul woke up one day and realized colleges want to see applicants with extracurriculars. Unfortunately, it was too late for him to get any leadership positions because students like Ambitious Annie already had a track record of involvement.

Whether leadership positions are determined by student voting or application, whoever does the selecting wants to see someone who's already demonstrated dedication. After all, if your peers haven't selected you, why should colleges?

Annie got an early start with extracurriculars at the beginning of high school. Within the first month, she ran for, and won, the position of freshman representative of Model Congress. She was also interested in Amnesty International, so she went to a few meetings but didn't have time to do much more first semester. However, when the sophomore who held the position of

After a sophomore who held the position of Treasurer became too busy with AP classes to fulfill his responsibilities, Annie stepped up and volunteered to be Treasurer for the rest of the year. At the end of her freshman year, she ended up running for and winning the position of Treasurer of Model Congress for sophomore year. Her track coach picked her to be captain of the JV team, so she decided not to run for treasurer of Amnesty International. However, she stayed on as a member because she's made some friends in the club.

For 11th grade, Annie won the position of Vice President of Model Congress, so she became too busy to stay in the Math Club or Amnesty International. She maintained her involvement in Varsity Track because she had won a few races and enjoyed it. Her teammates respected her and knew she was dedicated to the team's success. Given that she'd already served as JV captain in 10th grade, they picked her to be captain of the team for 12th grade.

Annie didn't let her Model Congress responsibilities slip, though. She attended Model Congress conventions throughout 9, 10, and 11th grades, bringing home several awards. She was voted President for 12th grade, and she became the first Model Congress President to host a convention at her school.

Colleges like to see dedication to a few activities rather than membership in many. It's okay to be involved in several during 9th and 10th as you figure out what your interests are. However, as time goes on, it's important to pick a few to stick with, building the relationships and skills necessary to take your involvement to the next level.

Lessons Learned:

-Run for positions as early as possible. Take some initiative and risks.

-Get involved in several activities early to determine your interests (and see where there may be opportunities for leadership).

-Do something new and interesting like organizing a conference or creating a newsletter.

-Prioritize. You won't be able to stick with every club AND keep your grades up, so pick a few activities as school gets busier in 11th and 12th grade. In 11th grade, you'll have the SATs and, potentially, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.


August 21, 2014

Extracurricular Activities | How to Demonstrate Commitment

Extracurricular activities are one of the biggest parts of your college application. This means it's in your best interest to get the most bang for your buck on the clubs and sports you join.

However, most students don't do much in in their first 2 years of high school and then suddenly join a whole bunch of clubs in their last two. They're trying to cram in their extracurriculars (as well as properly preparing for a significant exam). Unfortunately, it's easy to see why this strategy is not optimal. The person reading your application has seen this sort of thing before and will see through the charade (see: College Admissions | Who is Reading Your Application). Here's a better way to participate in extracurriculars:

This philosophy is inspired by Carl Friedrich Gauss (a mathematician), and it signals exactly what you want to show college admissions officers. (Don’t worry, you won't have to be familiar with anything Gauss actually did to follow this strategy.) Gauss was arguably the greatest mathematician of all time. In his published mathematical works, he used this very simple phrase as a preface, “pauca sed matura,” which translates to “few but ripe.”

Gauss, while a prolific mathematician, was not a prolific writer. He refused to publish anything he considered to be incomplete. He would find one strand of research and follow it all the way to the end. Then, he'd only publish what he learned if he reached the end. (Someone following this advice for *academics* would easily fail high school for failing to turn in assignments, but that's beside the point.)

Learn from Gauss, and make this your guide to extra-curricular activities. Your objective is not to join a large number of clubs and sports. You don't want to be a jack of all trades and master of none. Instead, join fewer clubs and and remain in those clubs for at least 3 years. Get super-involved and rise to a leadership position within those clubs.

Admissions officers aren't stupid. If they see that you did nothing in your first few years of high school and then that you suddenly became a member of many clubs in the last, they'll know why. They hate these people.

The best solution? Do what our friend Gauss did: signal commitment, passion, and leadership by sticking with fewer things and doing them better as a result.

By sticking with 2 or 3 activities for 4 years rather than 6 or 7 for only one, you demonstrate that you have a lasting passion for an activity and are motivated enough to pursue it even when there is no immediate payoff. (Boost in college admissions chances) You also show that you're willing to make a commitment and pursue the things you enjoy. If you manage to rise to a leadership position within the club (and honestly, this is not difficult), then you can make this a big talking point in your application. So when joining clubs, keep in mind the Gaussian philosophy; “Few, but ripe.”

5 Steps to Starting Your College Essay

"Where do I start?!" is probably the most common question students have about the college essay. It's not like anything you've written before. It's not a tweet, and it's not an essay about "Great Expectations" or "Romeo and Juliet." It's something in-between: personal AND professional. How do you toe the line? I'll cover that combination in future blog posts. For now, here are 5 tips to help you start writing the dreaded college essay.

1. Don't start at the beginning.
Write any random potential anecdotes, details, or ideas as they come to you. You can work on connecting them later. It's possible (and highly likely) you will write the most effective sentences of your essay only after a great detail of free-writing. Feel free to use any format that works for you in the brainstorming stage - it can be bullet points, an outline, or just a word or two. Your goal is just to get as much down on paper as possible.

2. Ask a friend to interview you.
Find someone you know and trust to ask you several questions about your passions, experiences, hobbies, authors, TV shows, etc. This is much more effective than the broad (and scary!) question: "What do you want to do with your life?" After having this focused interview, your "interviewer" will be able to give you extended feedback on your interests, strengths, and weaknesses. This will be helpful in figuring out your essay topic.

3. Use writing prompts.
Filling in the blanks can help you overcome writer's block. Ex. "I like ____ because it makes me feel ____." "A global issue that excites me is _____ because ______." "I enjoy learning about ____ because ______."

4. Browse your first-choice college's website.
Since you're probably passionate about your first-choice school, looking over its website may help you figure out themes to discuss in your essay. If the school specializes in business management degree programs or humanities, then you might want to tailor your essay accordingly.

5. Make a list of your passions.
You'll notice the idea of passion comes up a few times here. That's because passion is necessary for engaging writing. If you don't enjoy what you're writing, the admissions officers probably won't either. On the other hand, if you're clearly excited about whatever it is you have to discuss, it's more likely the admissions officers will be, too.

College Interview Outfits And Clothing | What To Wear

or...Dress to Impress: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to College Interview Outfits

I know that you have a lot on your plate, that you have to worry about grades, extracurricular activities, SATs, and essays, to name a few things. I also know that picking out college interview outfits is not on the top of your list of concerns. Still, I know many students who let this slide, and then ended up freaking out the night before the interview. In the hope that this does not happen to you, I have put together a head-to-toe guide of how to present yourself in your interview.

1. Neck and Above

Girls, if you wear makeup, make sure that it is natural and minimal. Avoid heavy eye makeup and excessive bronzer.

Do not wear too much jewelry. No jewelry is necessary, but girls may wear a pair of stud earrings, such as pearls, and a simple necklace and watch. For boys, a watch is all you need. If you have any piercings besides in the ears, take out the earrings before the interview.

Make sure that your hair is combed and neat. If you are having a bad hair day, do not freak out. Girls, just put your hair in a neat bun, or half up and half down. Also, note to both boys and girls: avoid elaborate hairstyles, too much hair gel, or hair colors that do not appear in nature!

Boys should make sure that they are clean-shaven. While your friends might like your handlebar moustache, admissions officers probably will not.


2. Clothes

These are basic guidelines, which in some cases you can modify slightly. In general, you can be somewhat more casual in alumni or student interviews than you can be during interviews with admissions officers. Also, if you are interviewing for an alternative liberal arts college like Hampshire, you can be a little more lax than you would be for more traditional schools. For interviews with undergraduate business schools like Wharton, you should veer towards the more formal side. However, the following guidelines work for any interview, whether with a student, alumni, or admissions officer, at a hippy-dippy liberal arts school or a more stuffy business program.

In general, business casual is the name of the game. For girls, this means a blouse, twinset, or tailored sweater on top, and slacks or a tailored skirt that reaches the knees or below on bottom. For boys, this means a button down shirt and slacks. Boys may also add a sweater vest or nice sweater if they would like.

Black, white, navy, or neutral colors are the best. Make sure that everything is clean and ironed. The focus should be on you, not on your clothes! Also, make sure everything fits well. No saggy pants or anything too tight! Finally, not to state the obvious, but avoid showing too much skin. Boys, this means you too. (Girlsm while on Gossip Girl it might be okay to show tons of cleavage for a Yale interview. In real life, this does not fly.)


3. Feet

For girls, wear black or neutral colored, clean shoes. Loafers or small heels work well. Avoid shoes that make it hard to walk. You do not want to be remembered as the girl who stumbled and tripped!

For boys, dress shoes or loafers are perfect.

Now that dressing for your interviews is a no-brainer, it is time to start working on what you are going to say! Stay tuned for more on that next week.

5 Steps to Starting Your College Essay | Video


I've created a short video with tips on how to start your college essay.

Enjoy!

7 Questions to Answer in Your College Essay | Video


I've created a short video with 7 questions you'll want to answer in your college essay.

Enjoy!