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Don’t rule out private colleges

7 Nov

A former student of mine is now attending Dominican University of California in San Rafael on an athletics/academics scholarship that provides full tuition.

While the window of application opportunity may be closing by the end of this month for some public universities, most private universities are still accepting applications. There are many advantages to attending a private college:

  • Smaller class size
  • Opportunity to get to know your professors better
  • Better chance of getting the classes you need
  • Greater likelihood of being able to design a major of your own
  • Higher chance of graduating in four years — in fact, some four-year private universities guarantee this
  • And even though the tuition costs are significantly higher than those of public universities, often the private colleges have huge endowments from their alumni, so that you can get large scholarships and university grants. Because you can most likely graduate in four years (if you don’t mess around!), the overall cost may be the same as that for a four-year college. The oldest of our four children attended Biola University in southern California. There she got a leadership scholarship, was able to live in the dorm for as many years as she wanted, made wonderful friends, got a great job as an assistant to the English department’s dean, and received an excellent recommendation that got her a job teaching immediately after graduation. Our out-of-pocket was no higher than that for our other three children who attended public universities.Give private colleges a chance! Apply and see how the financial aid might play out.Any good news out there? Where have you been accepted to college thus far?

    Coming April 2018 to an online or mortar bookstore near you, 50 Life Lessons for Graduates–a perfect gift gift for high school and college graduates. Save time, money, and heartache from 50 millenial college grads who share their best life lessons.

Contests are money-makers

10 Oct

How long would it take you to earn $500? Sixty hours after deducting taxes and such?

High school students often overlook a great moneymaker — writing contests and other kinds of writing competitions. Counselors and teachers frequently get flyers and email notifications about essay contests, but it’s the rare student who enters them. With a little research and a focused essay, you can win $500 or $1,000 or more for the effort of an hour or so — nice pay for a relatively short investment of time.

Here are some tips about writing contest essays:

  • As you research contests choose topics about which you can write passionately, so that you are vested in your essay.
  • Read all the material provided by the organization. “Listen” to what the organization is telling you about how the essay will be judged.
  • Make sure you understand the actual topic.
  • Outline the question. Often there are several areas of focus the organization would like you to address. Make sure you — as the illustration above indicates — hit the mark of what the contest creators want.
  • Research the issue thoroughly, choosing reliable sources. Make sure you have the latest information, as often these are news driven. For example, if you are being asked to discuss solutions to solve a university system’s budget crisis, you need to know the current issues. Go to creditable sources, such as several news organizations that will give you varied perspectives about the issues.
  • Organize your essay appropriately, according to the essay type. For example, a reflective essay is organized differently than a persuasive essay.
  • Get feedback from a trusted adult, and revise your essay carefully.
  • Proofread meticulously — make sure there are no errors.
  • Follow all the specific directions for submission. It would be sad if your entry was thrown out simply because you didn’t, for example, put your contact information in the correct spot.

One current example is the annual John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Essay Contest. Each year the JFK Library challenges high school students to write a focused essay about an elected official who has risked his or her career to demonstrate political courage. The website offers many links to help students about the elements of a strong essay, guidelines for citations, and other information. This is a very prestigious contest — one that could provide you with $10,000, as well as an exciting trip to Boston.

At the time my oldest child was applying to colleges, affirmative action was an issue regarding college admission. Colleges had been admitting quotas of minority students, relaxing standards at times so as to achieve ethnic diversity on their campuses. One statewide organization sponsored an essay about this topic, and my daughter entered the contest. She worked hard to get the latest news information — which was breaking almost daily — and wrote a strong persuasive essay arguing against quotas.

She was one of a half dozen students who won a $400 award, which the organizers presented to her and the other winners at a stunning reception at the top of the Transamerica building in San Francisco. Winning that award was a huge confidence builder for her–it helped her believe that she would be able to compete with others at the college level.

Research contests (make sure they’re legit) and choose a couple that have topics that interest you. Pay particular attention to local ones, as the odds for winning are greater. Then give them a try. It’s nice pay for a short investment of time.


I’m super-excited that my book, 50 Life Lessons for Grads, will be released in April 2018. Pre-orders for the book will be available soon. Look here or at your favorite book store site for more information soon! 


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?

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What college admissions essay topic are you working on?