Archive | September, 2017

Making that admissions essay stand out

26 Sep

Many college admissions applications require one or more personal essays. Each essay should convey your writing strength, personality, leadership, unique talent, experience, perspective, humor, and insight. This is not a boring English class essay that you bang out in a half hour. It should “sing,” so that the admissions officer who reads it sings your praises.

First my suggestions, followed by some information from The Common Application and the University of California.

How would you approach an essay topic? Let me first mention what you should NOT do:

  • Do not just list a resume of accomplishments.
  • Do not create a fictional self and write what you think the reader would want to hear.
  • Do not write an unfocused mess.
  • Do not speak in vague generalities.
  • Do not try to include all your memorized SAT words.
  • Do not turn in an essay that has not been carefully reviewed, edited, and proofread.

Instead, follow these guidelines:

  • Focus your essay. If it’s too broad and all-inclusive, it will sound like a list.
  • Prove your overall thesis with evidence, such as detailed events, examples, facts, quotations. Convey your personality by giving your reader some insight about what your world and experience have been.
  • Be specific with this evidence. Don’t just keep saying vague generalities, such as “I am a leader, because I know how to lead people . . . blah, blah, blah . . . .” Instead, here’s a great example that got one girl into UC Berkeley.  Notice how she used details to develop her claim about leadership: Over the last two years as S Club president, I learned that leadership responsibilities include making others accountable. When several members who had committed to the Relay for Life said they couldn’t attend the Relay, I told them, ‘That’s okay, but you will have to get someone to take your place instead.’ That was the year our team expanded from eight members to fourteen, and we raised over $1,500 to donate to the American Cancer Society.   
  • Follow all instructions.
  • Allow the prompt itself to be a mini-outline. Include all the parts requested in the prompt.
  • Be yourself, but be the best of yourself there is. Show your humor. Use imagery that is not overused but that is natural. Use creative language.
  • Be accurate. If you don’t fully remember details about a historical figure or fictional character, do research before you write. This is NOT first draft writing — the reader will expect time and care put into this essay.
  • VERY IMPORTANT: Convey your own distinctive VOICE. Writer’s Digest suggests you think about your own distinct perspective and language and then speak from your heart.

Should Mom or your English teacher read this essay? Definitely! And in this case, I’d suggest you ask the English teacher, not your counselor, to review it for you. Your counselor probably does not have a background in writing instruction. Reserve a day to work on your essay(s), set it aside, and then review it later for a fresh perspective.

Here is more info from The Common Application and the University of California.


The Common Application, used by more than 700 colleges, mostly private and many of them exclusive, requires one essay on one of the following:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change]

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

Some state universities will also have an essay requirement, as does the University of California, which requires four essays (of eight prompt choices) of no more than 350 words each. This information below is directly from the University of California admissions website, which also provides insight into how to answer each question:

1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.  

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”

6.  Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 

Things to consider:  Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place — like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Things to consider:  If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?

I’m SUPER excited to announce that my book 50 Life Lessons for Grads is now available for pre-order. You will LOVE hearing this fresh young voices share their wisdom:




What college admissions essay topic are you working on?

Take advantage of college fairs

21 Sep


The Campanile is a familiar landmark at UC Berkeley–where my husband Craig, our daughter Bethany, and I all got our undergrad degrees.

You can get a lot of bang for your zero-cost buck by attending a college fair. These events, held typically in the fall and spring around the country bring college recruiters to cities to talk with prospective students and their parents.

Typically, as many as 200 or more colleges attend these events — and many of my former students found their dream college at one of those fairs. If you do not have the time or money to travel all over the country or even just your own state, you can get some pertinent information in a short couple of hours.

You can find one in your area by talking to your high school counselor. Some of the major ones are sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and I have listed a link to its scheduled fairs at the end of this blog. An organization on the West Coast that sponsors college fairs is the Western Association for College Admission Counseling (WACAC), and I’ve listed the link to the two in the West that it sponsors below as well. You should register in advance to save time at the door for these FREE events, so you can save time when you arrive. You will get a bar code that colleges can quickly scan to send you material in the mail after the conference.

(As you search for these college fairs in your area, make sure that as you register online, that you are registering as a STUDENT and not a college rep. These are most always FREE events, so if the online form asks for payment . . . oops, you’ve got the wrong form!)

Look sharp when you go. Often the college reps at these fairs are from the prospective students or outreach office at their university. However, sometimes you might find that admissions officers and perhaps even the head admissions counselor is standing right in front of you.

To make the most of these events, engage with the college representatives. As I’ve taken students to college fairs over many years, I give them a pep talk before we enter the event, saying something silly like this: “You’re happy! You’re smart! You’re friendly!” That gets a smile on their faces and helps them understand that they should be the one most proactive about getting the most from the experience.

Do the following:

1. Smile, extend your hand, and introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Sally Smart, and I’m a student from Littletown.”

2. Explain what kind of college program you’re interested in. “I’m interested in mechanical engineering. Can you tell me something about your program?”

3. Engage in conversation about those subjects important to you. Here are some other great questions to ask:

  • “How would you characterize the students at your university?”
  • “What do students like most about the college?” “What do they like the least?”
  • “Is the faculty accessible to students other than the traditional office hours?”
  • “Are any departments being cut back or discontinued? If so, why?”
  • “What percentage of students receive merit-based financial aid? And what percentage of students receive need-based financial aid?”

You and your parents might want to make a list of important questions before you attend the college fair — ones that are most important to you.

I coach my students to ask each college rep at least a couple questions. One that can often catch a rep off-guard is “Do you like your job?” You can find out the true answer to that in their face — and that can say volumes about a school, too! If the rep was a student at that college, ask that person to relate some of their best and worst experiences.

Pick up any and all of the freebies: brochures, flyers, pens, and other trinkets. If you can’t use them, your friends and even your high school counselor probably can.

Any exciting news about college acceptances yet?

Here are those links to find college fairs near you:

How to figure out a college major

6 Sep

You can learn a lot about majors at a college bookstore!

As you’re making plans to apply to colleges, one question comes up repeatedly.

What will be your intended major?

That’s a biggie, seniors, because you want to apply to colleges that have a strong program in that major. (The answer to that question will be in next week’s blog.)

But how can you know if a major will be a good fit?

That’s also challenging at this point, but there are a couple good ways to find your academic niche.

First, on a university’s website, find the list of required courses for a major that interests you. Then go to the link for the required courses of that major (not the general ed courses).

Read through the actual course descriptions–the short paragraph that tells you what the course will be about). Do these seem interesting to you? If so, that could be a good fit for you.

Yes, you’re allowed to look through college textbooks.

Another strategy is to visit a college’s bookstore and head toward the section that has the books required for the various college classes (yes, you can do that!). Find your major and the various courses in the department being offered that semester (or quarter). Thumb through them. Read a page or two.

I’ve been known to ask students these questions. “Do these books seem interesting to you?” “Can you see yourself reading this material?” “If not, do you think this would be the best major for you?”

If you do NOT like the material in the textbooks, then peruse the bookstore for academic books that DO interest you. Maybe that will be your fit instead.

Happy major hunting . . . and keep in mind that some universities will allow you to apply “Undeclared,” which means you have not yet decided on a major.

Hey, reader . . . 50 Life Lessons for Grads–written by 50 college grads–will be released in April. Look for it for the perfect gift for all the grads you know.